Whether taught in a one-room country school or in a series of larger schools geared toward specific grades, everyone has vivid memories of their childhood education. How do we preserve the buildings in which these memories took place? How do we know which schools are truly worthy of preservation? The National Register of Historic Places provides criteria for evaluating our historic schools, combining consideration for architectural or historical significance with a measure of the building’s integrity.
Typically, schools are considered eligible for listing on the National Register for their association with public education in Iowa or for their architectural importance. They may also be eligible for their association with a prominent educator or if an important event occurred at the school. While we want to recognize schools that fostered unique education experiences or illustrate the best designs, we also want to preserve those buildings that represent the typical educational practices and school designs of their era.
To determine whether your school may be considered eligible for listing on the National Register, ask these questions:
One of the greatest difficulties in evaluating whether schools are eligible for listing on the National Register is determining whether there is sufficient “integrity” to convey their historical or architectural significance. Integrity is made up of seven aspects: location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association. An eligible historic property will always possess several, if not most, of these aspects.
In general, to be eligible for listing on the National Register, the school should retain its original massing, form, pattern of door and window openings, and architectural detailing. It should be recognizable as a school from the period of its significance. However, older schools are often adapted to meet the needs of new educational trends and technology. These alterations and additions are often an important part of the building’s history. For example, libraries, gymnasiums, and spaces for the performing arts and building trades were often added to existing schools in the middle 20th century. Any alterations that date to more than 50 years ago may have significance in their own right.
It is important to keep in mind that many of the more recent alterations are so widespread that they will not necessarily prevent a school from being nominated to the National Register. For example, during the energy crisis of the 1970s, it was very common to replace or cover up the large window openings in historic schools. Fortunately, this change often involved only the removal of the window sash, not enlargement of window openings, and will not disqualify a school from nomination to the National Register.
The State Historical Society of Iowa has produced a series of booklets to help those who want to learn more about historic schools and nominate them to the National Register of Historic Places.
The Statewide Public School Historic Context “Public Schools for Iowa: Growth and Change, 1848-1955” provides additional in-depth information on the significance of public schools and the requirements for nominating them to the National Register. It will be available on this Web site in the near future.
For additional information regarding listing on the National Register, please contact:
Beth Foster Hill, National Register Coordinator