By Aldo Polanco ’23
The Weitz Center for Creativity has historically been a multi-purpose building that has undergone many additions, remodels and owners. Initially built in 1910 as the Northfield High School, it was located on a two-acre site in central Northfield, only two blocks from the main business district, what we now know as Division Street. The building had its first additions in 1934 and 1954 due to changes in enrollment and course offerings. Although there is little information about the first additions, as time went on more and more capital was invested in the structure. The building was evaluated for reuse multiple times, eventually landing in the conditional ownership of Carleton College.
When John North initially founded Northfield, Minnesota in 1856, he laid out a few public spaces, forming Bridge Square, Central Park, and an open city block for a public school. By 1888, the high school had already been constructed, but when a fire broke out, it had to be replaced with a new one in 1910. However, as the town grew and the secondary school system across Minnesota changed, so did the 111-year-old building. In 1934, despite economic issues, the school added more classrooms and a multi-purpose auditorium/gymnasium. When the school was later being re-evaluated for use, the 1934 wing was described as “of an Art Deco period of design, and is the only remaining building in Northfield of that style. With a little work, its best features can still be restored and be made attractive and noticeable.”
Due to a growing population following World War II, schooling had morphed from rural one-room school houses to junior high and high school classes. In 1951, enrollment totalled 734 students. At this point a new, larger gymnasium was added to the eastern side of the school, connecting to the 1934 addition. The two-story addition held science and home economics classrooms, an industrial technology shop, and food service facilities. However, the expansion poured over into College Street. This meant construction closed down the road, joining Central Park with the rest of the school. The park, while used for recreation for the schoolchildren, was set to remain for the public and not for the school’s exclusive use. A proposal existed to excavate ball fields and play areas for students, but it was struck down by residents of the area.
The number of students continued to grow throughout the 50s and 60s, with 996 students in 1960. This massive growth prompted recommendations for the creation of a new high school. Before the opening of this new school, enrollment peaked at 1,200. With the new 9th through 12th grade school, the then-middle school had suddenly become huge for the relatively small number of junior high students. Another elementary school in town opened in 1970, Greenvale Park School, further lowering the grades taught at the middle school, with only 832 students in grades 7 through 9. This was indicative of a larger trend and the school would only further decline in enrollment until 1982 where it had gone down to pre-50s levels at 682 students. It was able to recoup some of the losses in students through the late 80s and 90s with 860 students attending in 1995, when the first Middle School Reuse Plan was drafted.
By this point, however, the district had already invested a total of 4 million dollars in the previous two decades. The money was spent in improving and modernizing the structure. From 1975 to 1995 four major investments were disbursed. The earliest, in 1975 to 1980, centered mainly in accessibility in the form of ramps and elevators as well as asbestos removal. The second investment of half a million dollars was spent on energy conservation initiatives and was subsidized by Minnesota’s Energy Conservation Investment Loan. The project consisted of providing better storm windows and insulation for the parts of the building that had been created in 1910, 1936, and 1954. The largest capital spending took place from 1985 to 1990. The 2.75 million dollar project took on the issue of fire safety, alarms, electrical work, carpentry, painting, and complete remodeling of hallways, locker rooms, bathrooms, and classrooms. This undertaking completed a lot of the items that had been on the agenda for a while. The last significant investment was another half million dollars from 1990 to 1995, which included remodeling of offices, the auditorium, and cafeteria floor. Boilers and new heating controls were installed. A restoration of Central Park, adjacent to the building, was also included.
After all of these expenditures and considering the size of the structure, the City of Northfield, the school district and Carleton College all co-sponsored a Middle School Reuse Study on July 6th, 1995. The building was large, expensive to maintain, and the city was due to build a new middle school sooner rather than later. The study spanned the history of the building and included the possible ways it could be used by other entities or by the city itself. The report, created by SMSQ Architects, detailed five modes of ownership. Ownership by the college was one evaluated, but shut down due to rejection from the community and the fact that the college did not want to take the burden of the building. The school district rejected ownership as well. Among the remaining ownerships, the report recommended a city owned governance, where they would further evaluate tenants, similarly to how the Northfield City Hospital was run. However, voters would not approve funds for a new middle school until May 2001, when several parties would express interest.