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Views on Schools – Saving the Enduring Heart of a Community
By Tom Gauntt, Rose City Park resident (as printed in The Oregonian)
Author:Tom Gauntt
Published:5 May, 2006 - 9:51am
Issue:XXVI No. 3: May, 2006 RCPNA Newsletter and General Meeting Notice
Category:Education
The man’s voice shook with rage:

“If you close this school, it will be a tombstone for the neighborhood.” He said it with passion, a passion that only a handful of parents apparently shared as they met earlier this month to discuss plans for closing Rose City Park Elementary School. Most said they’d work toward making the school’s proposed new home - at what is now Gregory Heights Middle School - a better place for their children’s education. They see their neighborhood school as something more than a building, some­thing that can be transplanted if necessary. Like a heart.

Yet buildings have power, no doubt. My personal relationship with this building ­Rose City Park - goes back generations; my great-uncle was the architect on the project in 1912. He had just come out from Indiana to the Wild West. I never met old Uncle Reuben, but he worked on a lot of government projects - the Washington County courthouse, a courthouse in Montana, some other schools.

All of them are imposing structures with a lot of brick, the Federalist style of architecture. My father would point them out as we passed by. In a way, it is Uncle Reuben’s design that now imposes Rose City Park’s doom. It is three stories of unreinforced masonry. Although there were some seismic upgrades in the 1980s, the building is still suspect.

A lot of brick and a lot of stairs. There is nothing about the school that is compliant with modem disability codes. All the bathrooms are in the basement, no doubt an innovation for 1912 (vs. having them outside) but now very inconvenient.

So when the school district huddled to determine how to save money by consolidating buildings and programs, Rose City stood out like a large brick thumb.

My sister started at the school in 1952 and at least one member of the family would be there for the next 20 years. Nieces and nephews attended in the 1980s, and my own daughter started in 2002. I ought to be very attached to the building, but I can’t say I am.

It was always very forbidding, the for­tress of bricks, the high cement walls, the sea of blacktop and the thousands of wrought-iron bars surrounding the play­ground on three sides. When I went there in the 1960s and ’70s we called it Rose City Penitentiary. It was K-8 then and was bursting with more than 900 students. I recall classes of 38 kids in some of my up­per grades.

In those days, we had too many kids and not enough money instead of our current situation of too few kids and not enough money. When I was in seventh grade, a bond measure went down to defeat, and the schools closed a month early. The fall version of the measure passed handily. One of my most stirring memories of the place came from first grade. All the kids filled the hall and the stairs leading to the main hall and sang Christmas songs. I seem to distinctly remember there being candles in the December gloom, although my adult brain tells me that would have been too great a fire hazard. Yet that is what I recall, 900 kids singing carols together in a dimly lit cavern of plaster, polished wood and iron staircases.

Once when I was in eighth grade, I was working on some school project after hours and had the run of the place. I re­member going into all the rooms and thinking about my time there. I fantasized about the school becoming my home and each class­room a huge bedroom and I would go a month without making my bed.

So I wonder what will happen to the place. Will it become a tombstone after the kids are gone? Will the McMenamins buy it and somehow work out the code­ compliance problems? A community center? School offices? Will it be tom down and become affordable housing?

The heart simile stays with me. Usually, you take a heart from a dying body to bring life to another dying body. Here, it is the heart we want to keep alive, and we’re seeking a new host that will allow it to thrive. If the school is the heart of the community, it can endure a transplant to a more stable environment. Uncle Reuben will have to understand.


Rose City Park School Postcard

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