The slogan of the Midwestern city in which I grew up is branded forever in my brain: "The Little City With The Big Future."
It sounds proud, but the town looks very much like it did when I was young, only with more empty storefronts on the square, and the historic brick high school—once the eye-catching centerpiece of the square—was demolished before I was savvy enough to mount a campaign to save it. After a few decades, the slogan's vague, static promise of eventual greatness prompts the question of when—or if—that future will ever come. I tend to think not. It still bugs me every time I see the ho-hum community center slouching where the old high school used to stand.
So the slogan of my adopted hometown of Moscow, Idaho, "Heart of the Arts," sounds reassuringly self-realized. Here is a town that knows what it's about: community theater, dance academies, create-it-yourself art stores, galleries, a city arts commission, writing workshops, independent bookstores, public art, a community band and orchestra, a nonprofit cinema and performing arts center, plenty of homegrown live music, artists' and musicians' societies and institutes, and as many local artists selling their stuff at the farmers' market as farmers.
Now we have the icing on the cake: Moscow's landmark 1912 high school is well on its way to becoming an arts-oriented community center. The stately old building, rechristened The 1912 Center, is newly in the care of a custom-designed nonprofit called, appropriately enough, Heart of the Arts, Inc. The organization, founded in 2003 to "develop and fund artistic and cultural programs using the 1912 Center as the heart of that development," has helped secure a $100,000 grant from the Murdock Trust to assist with remodeling, equipping and furnishing the center. It's the first financial shot in the arm for the building since the late 1990s and its first new construction in more than five years, heralding the beginning of a new era for this old beauty. No one could ever consider tearing it down again.
Designed by Spokane architect Clarence Hubbell and built in 1912 during the "Progressive Era" of education, the three-story, 30,000-sq.-ft. building housed Moscow students as a high school until 1939, and then as a junior high until 1959. It was abandoned for academic use by the school district in 1974, instead employed as administrative offices, a workshop and storage space. Occupying a high, grassy knoll on Third Street just east of Moscow's downtown, it sits right on the edge of Moscow's nationally listed historic Fort Russell neighborhood and was listed in the National Register in 1992.
"The building itself is magnificent," said Kenton Bird, president of HAI. "Its architecture makes a strong statement about Moscow's commitment to education in the early 20th century, and it's already a sought-after gathering place, as demonstrated by the number of community groups who meet, eat, learn and play there.
"It's a little tattered around the edges, but its inherent beauty and strength is apparent on closer inspection," Bird said.
The building was purchased from the school district in 1997 by the City of Moscow, with the promise that only private funds would be used to rehabilitate it. An anonymous donor provided $2 million, which helped complete the first two phases of the work, including the building infrastructure, site work, conversion of the gymnasium into the Great Room, the creation of the plaza terrace outside the Great Room, conversion of the boiler room to a commercial kitchen and conversion of several classrooms on the east side into gathering centers for senior citizens and people with disabilities. The upper two floors remained basically untouched, but the whole building was made weather-tight and seismically secure.
"The City of Moscow did a great job of overseeing the construction of the first two phases and of stabilizing the building against deterioration," Bird said.
The building's best features, according to Moscow historian Lillian W. Otness in her book A Great Good Country, are the four entrances, framed by granite pillars and covered porticos topped by ornamental balustrades.
"Through its neoclassical architecture and prominent location, the building continues to speak of an era when learning and architecture were integrally linked and when ordinary citizens were community builders," wrote University of Idaho professors of architecture Wendy McClure and Nels Reese in an article about the school several years ago.
Looking at the 1912 Center, designed before two world wars and the Depression, the ideals that Muscovites held for themselves and their entire community in the first years of the 20th century are made manifest.
"It's an art form in and of itself," said Jenny Sheneman, executive director of HAI.
Despite its lofty aspirations, it might be hard to imagine how the 1912 Center could possibly add anything to Moscow's already vibrant arts scene. In fact, throughout the 1970s and '80s, the community's collective vision for the structure faltered.
During the same time period, Moscow's historic federal building, built in 1909 (now the Moscow City Hall), was also in limbo, and the city's Carnegie library, dating back to 1907 (expanded and renovated in the early '80s) desperately needed help. Having three historic public buildings in need of considerable funds for adaptive re-use in the same period complicated issues. Despite the old high school's solid condition, noteworthy architecture, historical significance and numerous advocates, it saw less and less use. Then the school district put plywood over most of the windows, which is usually the kiss of death for old buildings. Fortunately, the visionaries didn't give up.
"In 1990, the consensus view of Moscow's architectural community was that the school was a prime candidate for rehabilitation," wrote Reese and McClure. "Based on the collective professional experience, the path to rehabilitation seemed relatively straightforward in spite of over 30 years of deferred maintenance. Moscow's community of architects composed and signed a letter to that effect and submitted it to the school board for consideration."
In 1992, design consultants estimated that the building was structurally sound and could be rehabilitated for academic use at a cost of $1.8 million, which was much less than it would cost to construct a new school. While re-using older buildings is very often economically advantageous and culturally beneficial, sometimes it is hard for people to imagine that an old building, retrofitted with modern technology, can be even better than a new building.
"Fear of the unknown commonly plagues rehabilitation projects, and the 1912 building was no exception. Many who toured the 1912 building were discouraged by its outward appearance," wrote Reese and McClure. "[Plywood on the windows] amplified the structure's neglected condition."
The school district decided to sell the building, and its loss became the City of Moscow's gain, even if it wasn't quite sure how to do right by its new asset.
Once the first two phases of remodeling were completed in 2001 and 2002, the building's Great Room and Plaza saw lots of action. They were used regularly for dances by the Palouse Folklore Society and for lectures, lunches, recitals, and receptions.
But with financial need exceeding rental income, and nothing going in the rest of the building, progress stalled.
"A municipality is not really set up to run a capital fund-raising campaign. City officials have other priorities," said Bird. "I give credit to former Mayor Marshall Comstock for putting together the task force that eventually recommended management of the building be turned over to a nonprofit organization."
When this recommendation was made, HAI was ready and waiting. In 2006, the group was selected by the City of Moscow to operate, maintain and grow the 1912 Center. They have a five-year management contract with the city that will expire in September 2011 with the option to renew. HAI is responsible for raising the funds to complete the renovation of the building with the hope that it can start earning its keep. Currently, the only city funds involved are a management fee for HAI and a utilities fee.
"It is understood that the building is to be self-sustaining at the time of renewal," said Sheneman, an energetic, persuasive leader with a background in theater management. "Our day-to-day operations have been covered by the management fee and we have been able to put away the money from the rentals of the Great Room for use for renovations and repairs."
One of HAI's missions is to "foster connections between the community and various art forms."
The transformation of the spacious 1912 Center into a multi-generational, multi-purpose community center with art as its focus opens up multitudes of possibilities.
One classroom on the second floor still has an original built-in stage. A visit to the topmost floor of the building is breathtaking—the huge open space is like a ballroom.
Sheneman reels off a few ideas for the space.
"We can do children's cooking classes partnering seniors with kids," she said. "We can have a historical classroom where actors can take visitors and students back in time to 1912. There are segments of our community who need spaces to get together and meet where they're not in someone's home or at a coffee shop where they feel obligated to buy food to be there. We need a shared office space for a lot of different nonprofit arts groups, including HAI. We need rehearsal spaces, exhibit spaces, studio spaces, a recording booth where musicians can lay down some track."
Jack Porter is a member of Moscow's historic preservation commission and attended seventh grade in the school in 1958-59. He says he's delighted to have the 1912 Center moving into the next phase of rehabilitation.
"I'm looking forward to future phases when that amazing space on the top floor can be occupied and those ugly sheets of plywood can be replaced with real windows," he said.
"Heart of the Arts has made great progress since we took over day-to-day management on May 1, 2007," said Bird. "We hired an experienced and enthusiastic executive director in Jenny Sheneman. We created an interactive Web site and streamlined the reservation process. We boosted use of the building by both public and private groups. We've continued our successful programs such as the Summer Plaza Concerts and the Winter Market.
"And we're ready to go forward this year with construction of the West Wing—an art workshop, dressing room/bathroom and public meeting room," continues Bird. Once Moscow residents see new construction taking place, they'll know we're turning the community's dreams for the building into reality, and as each new phase is completed, more possibilities open."
It looks like Moscow's own "big future" has arrived.
1912 Center, 412 E. Third St., Moscow, Idaho. 208-669-2249, 1912Center.org.