In the 1800s public schools were invented by Horace Mann, a legislator who felt that education was a key component in keeping a democratic government. He felt that most people should be able to defend their country intellectually as well as physically.

Nearly two centuries ago, in the 1830s, very few people were learned. Many learned to read and write at home, like Abraham Lincoln. It was clear, however, that if the masses were to be educated, the United States would have to have a strong public school system.

At first, one-room school houses came on the scene by the thousands. Back then, a customary education reached only to the eighth-grade level. Very few graduated from high school, and even fewer from college. Clinton had some high school education at the old Washington School, across from DeWitt Park from the Grammar School, which later became City Hall on Third Street.

Slowly, Clinton became a town of a more refined nature and many young people wanted to get a high school diploma. At that time, Henry Sabin was our superintendent of schools; and, he also served as the state of Iowa’s superintendent on several occasions.

Under his fine leadership, Clinton built a magnificent high school on the corner of Sixth Avenue South and Fourth Street on the previous site of St. Mary’s Church.  Josiah Rice (1854-1939) was the architect.  Most of the city’s schools were downtown then, surrounding the two main parks. Rice’s years in Clinton were from 1885 to 1903 when he sold his business to the Morrell Co. and moved to Chicago where he died and was buried in Rock Island, Ill.

Next to the very famous Louis Sullivan, who designed the Van Allen building, one of the best-known architects in Clinton’s early history is Rice — who designed the Lamb block (aka Jacobsen building), the Women’s Club (aka the George Curtis home), the Charles Curtis home across the street, St. John’s Episcopal (aka AME Bethel), the Howes building, the First Baptist Church near Roosevelt (now demolished), two Shoecraft buildings, the St. Mary’s Rectory, the T.M. Gobble and E.M. Thayer homes, and many other notable buildings.

The first Clinton High School building (1888-1921) was one of Rice’s finest presentations.  It was well-known as one of “the finest high schools anywhere” and offered German, Greek, French, and Latin. It was one of the first high schools to have a bonafide science lab. In 1908 there were 52 in the graduation class and in 1913, 80; and 90 by the following year.

By the time that the new high school was built on west Eighth Avenue South in 1922, the old high school (Roosevelt) was jam-packed with more than 500 students, as the trend for young people to attain a high school diploma had grown enormously during the early part of the 20th Century.

Although many of Clinton’s wealthy families sent their children to posh private schools, many did not. Some excellent students and future leaders passed through this exquisite building: Merritt Sutton, attorney and judge; Dwight Seaman, businessman; Fred “Duke” Slater, attorney, judge, and All-American football player; Fay Richardson, business woman; Larry Howe, realtor and businessman; Fulton, Ill., native, who transferred to CHS, Bert Ingwersen, who became the University of Illinois football coach and athletic director; Homer Smith, local lawyer and WWI aviator hero; Dr. Cliff Grant, D.D.S....to name but a few.

Since 1922, the Roosevelt building has been an elementary school and the administrative offices of the Clinton Community schools. In 1959, Roosevelt had a sprinkler system installed, allowing its ornate interior to remain open. A modest investment could upgrade the windows, install an elevator and tuck point the exterior which would add many decades to this key historic structure.

The 1888 Clinton High School building is of the Romanesque style, and its tower’s summit is 90 feet above the ground. It is believed to be the oldest surviving school in Clinton. (The primary building on Roosevelt in Lyons may rival it.)

The old high school’s stately lines have graced DeWitt Park since 1888 when there were no famous “Roosevelts.” This park has been a central point of interest in downtown Clinton ever since the Iowa Land Company first designated it and Clinton Park as “Parks in Perpetuity,” back in 1855.

Grand buildings, such as Rice’s 1888 Clinton High School building, are major works of art that define a town like Clinton — portraying its roots and trumpeting our important place in the building of America.  To destroy it would be a travesty.  

Current “green” philosophy ought to also be considered, in that demolishing an old but serviceable building, while additionally (and at considerable expense) remodeling a newer off-site building to serve as replacement, both flies in the face of conservative preservation philosophy and defies common sense.  Surely, the very act of carting debris to the county landfill is a tremendous waste of time and materials, not to mention issues regarding the careful disposal of hazardous materials which could develop.  

No one expects a city to preserve every last historical structure (although nearby Galena, Ill., comes close), but every community — especially those with important and significant ones like Clinton — needs to weigh carefully the importance of its top 10 to 20 remaining historic edifices. They are treasures.  

Gary Herrity is the Clinton Herald’s historical columnist.

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