Duluth Jefferson Elementary finds new life in the children's center

The City of Duluth boasts a multitude of historic architecture, but changing times call for a reconsideration of how to best preserve these older structures. Several of Duluth's older, historic buildings have been torn down. Other structures received a different fate, such as the old Jefferson Elementary school that now houses both a children's center and two stories of apartments.

"[It] makes me cringe to think about the architecture that's been lost," said architect Doug Zaun of Wagner Zaun Architecture. "A lot of that (old architecture) is still in place, a lot of it is sort of crumbling. Some of it's (been) fixed up, a lot of it's been demolished."

In an attempt to preserve Duluth's historic architecture, decaying buildings have been renovated and given new life, restructuring the purpose of these aging structures. Jefferson Elementary has been standing since the late 19th Century, and now houses more than just students.

Jefferson Elementary School was built in 1894 to alleviate other schools during the boom period in the late 19th Century, according to "Through the Years with Jefferson Elementary."

The building and its grounds still take up the entire 900 block below Second Street East. Boasting such innovations as some of Duluth's first indoor plumbing that featured "automatic flush," the 1894 Duluth School Board said Jefferson was "undoubtedly one of the best ward schools in the country."

But the school board could not prevent the population decline that Duluth saw in the 1970s. With a lowering population of children, elementary schools such as Jefferson needed to find a new purpose as enrollment dwindled.

"We had too much school," Zaun said.

The Board closed Jefferson in 1982, according to a Duluth News Tribune article from the same year. St. Luke's Hospital purchased the property and converted the lower level into a child care center and renamed the building "Jefferson Children's Center," which still resides in the structure. The upper two floors were converted into apartments, using the old classrooms as living spaces.

"It's an older building, so we've had issues with plumbing," said Jefferson Children's Center Assistant Director Barb DeFanto, who has worked in Jefferson for 21 years. "In general, it's held up really nice."

According to Zaun, the building is designed in the Neoclassical style, that tries to recreate the simple, geometric architecture of Ancient Greece and Rome. Jefferson is made of locally quarried brownstone, with enormous, roughly cut blocks making up the lower story. The second story has smaller, more refined blocks, and the third is made of even finer cut brick, giving the building a layered look.

There are two pillared entrances to the building. The lower entrance on Second Street leads to the Jefferson Children's Center in the ground floor of the building, while the higher entrance on Third Street leads to the apartments on the upper floors.

"Having an old school building as your work setting, it's pretty cool," said Samantha Dykema, a pre-kindergarten teacher.

The inside of the Jefferson Children's Center keeps in touch with the old spirit of the school. There are several original classrooms and every morning children fill the halls for their preschool and pre-kindergarten classes.  A large, open gym area gives the kids plenty of room to play during the school day.

While the elementary school itself was shut down, the center kept children playing and learning in this historic building. When a historic building, such as the Jefferson, becomes obsolete,  finding a new use for it preserves the historic architecture of Duluth.

As Zaun said, "That's great preservation."

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