Decorah Schools

Overview

09

Owner

Decorah Schools

Building Name

Carrie Lee Elementary School, John Cline Elementary School, John Roberts High School, Westside School

Year Built

1922/1935

In his 1998 National Register nomination for the East Side Elementary and Middle Schools, David Anderson clearly delineates the development of this public school complex. The 1897 building, demolished in 2008, was designed by Minneapolis architects. Anderson, who worked with newspaper articles and the partial building plans available to him, credits the Davenport, Iowa, architectural firm Temple and Burrows with designing the 1922 building (the extant Carrie Lee Elementary School), then called the Decorah High School. Anderson says that Altfillisch was “retained as supervising architect by Temple and Burrows for the execution of their plans in 1922.”

Bill Hart in his Feb. 23, 1978 Decorah Journal “Red Book Notes” column on Altfillisch has a somewhat different story about the 1922 “Carrie Lee” building. Hart claims that the original designs by a Waterloo (sic), Iowa, firm were exceeding the approved budget, and that the school board “paid off the firm of Waterloo architects and hired Charles Altfillisch to make adjustments in the plan for the new building so they could build it for under the amount voted by the taxpayers. Charles did this and took charge of the project until completion.”  It is hard to judge the truth of this claim, but Hart notes that his father was one of the school board’s five members during this project and that he himself and his wife became freshmen at the school in January 1923.

There is, however, no dispute about Altfillisch’s complete control over the 1935 additions to the 1922 building. Anderson includes floor plans and a careful discussion of the additions. The 1922 building had two entrances on the south, Vernon-Street side. Altfillisch added a section to the west that provided a third entrance. The brick and stone work of the addition are so perfectly matched that most viewers would not recognize that this section is later, although a slight seam between the two parts is still visible. Anderson notes that the original building had a stone marker “High School 1922” and that in 1935 Altfillisch added a new marker on the west section that says “1935 Decorah.”  (The combination of the two name bands therefore became the rather odd  “1935 Decorah…High School 1922.”

The 1935 addition also included an expansion of the original 1922 auditorium, and the addition of a large gymnasium to the north. (In 2014 the auditorium was refurbished in sympathy with Altfillisch’s original plans by local designer Constance Johnson.) The gymnasium is also built of red brick with Bedford stone detailing, but according to Anderson the styling evokes the somewhat more contemporary “Streamline Moderne” tradition. Anderson claims that “the truss roof support system is designed with an economy of means that gives the whole an unexpected lightweight appearance.” Anderson notes that the large original windows have been replaced with brick infill and that in 1974 an addition was built to the northwest of the original gym.

The 1998 National Register of Historic Places designation included all the school buildings on a single, sizable piece of land. When the East Side School was demolished in 2008, the National Park Service, at the request of the Iowa State Historic Preservation Office, delisted the complete property–thus the remaining 1922/1935 building, now named “Carrie Lee Elementary,” is no longer included on the NRHP.

The West Decorah tour includes a description and photos of Altfillisch’s 1936 West Side School and its major expansion in 1955.

Altfillisch also designed the 1955 John Roberts High School. This colorized photo by Larry Peterson shows the school’s original look, before major remodeling in the early 2000s.

Altfillisch also designed the well-preserved 1962 Midcentury Modern John Cline Elementary School.

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