How Algona Saved A School

Sep 7, 2016

O.B Laing Middle School is just the latest abandoned school building to be repurposed. Conversions started long ago with antique one-room country schools. Lately it's full-sized structures getting a makeover. This two-story brick edifice was built 86 years ago. The old homerooms will re-open later this year as living rooms, with 29 apartments for rent.  Standing in the old office is former principal Greg Stewart, who now helps the developer manage the property.

Former principal Greg Stewart next to his old office safe.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

"Right there is the safe," remembers Stewart. "I've joked that, you know, whoever gets this apartment, if they accidentally lock something inside they can call me because I still know the combination."

The old lockers will be retained, along with blackboards, trophy cases, library book shelves, even the science room cabinets were they found snakes in jars of formaldehyde. Algona residents, especially former faculty, are thrilled the place is being preserved. Walter Reemsma was a science teacher at O.B. Laing for 38 years.

Former science teacher Walter Reemsma in the auditorium.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

"I had a student and all of a sudden he runs up to my desk and said 'I swallowed a pen cap,'" said Reemsma. "He says I gave him the Heimlich. I can't remember, but he still credits me with saving his life."

Memories galore reside here. As school secretary, Cheryl Baas was the voice on the old intercom system.

"I can remember going to more than one staff member and telling them they had a phone call and I would cover their class for a while," according to Baas. "I knew that at the other end of that phone call they were hearing the news that a parent or loved one had died."

Since 1930, tens of thousands of kids were educated here.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

Developers acquired the building for $1.00, saving the school district the cost of tearing it down. They're investing $3.5 million to convert the school, and the nearby annex building. A gap in financing will be filled with tax incentives, when O.B. Laing is registered on the list of historic places. The building is named after a former superintendent. Jeff Knake is project manager for Foutch Brothers, and says school districts are contacting the developer.

"What we're finding is a lot of communities are very interested in using us as sort of an economic engine to provide workforce for expanding industry or being able to bring in new industry, which just isn't happening because there's no rental housing available for new employees to live."

Ornate tile decorates the main hall.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

The ceramic tile hallway will remain as is so the public can keep using the classic old gymnasium and auditorium. Just around the corner, Jan Sowers taught in room number 8.

"In 1971 we saw the Title IX coming along and so we decided to get ahead of the game and we opened it up to boys and girls, and the kids just loved it," recalls the former home economics teacher. "My boys really liked the sewing unit because it was a machine."

Now 78, and still walking across the creaky wooden floor of her old room, Sowers says she intends to return as a resident.

Future resident Jan Sowers poses at her old blackboard.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

"I spent 35 years here and that's almost half my life. I might just as well spend the rest of my life here."

The former principal feels nostalgic over the historic overhaul.

"Schools are, by and large, a reflection of society," according to Greg Stewart. "A lot of it probably goes back to agricultural history, and a lot of kids are still brought up in this area with a very solid family structure, that there are times you need to work hard, and for the most part I think you see that reflected in the school setting."

Since 1930, thousands of students were educated here, and for handpicked buildings like O.B. Laing, school is never out. The same developer is planning future apartment conversions in Storm Lake and Fort Dodge.