For almost 110 years, the old Maeser School has dominated the corner of 500 East and 200 South, standing as a proud legacy of craftsmanship, history and rich education running deep through Provo's past.
The historic edifice was in continuous operation as an elementary school from 1898 until its closure in 2002, and serves as an icon and visual recall for thousands who spent their early education inside its embracing walls. Many teachers and kids, big and small, have a soft spot in their heart for the rambling old school.
The most important fact about the Maeser School today? It still stands.
The magnificent building seems to lift its frame and stretch even a few feet taller when you learn it came within the proverbial inches of a wrecking ball five years ago -- which would have reduced it to a pile of bricks and vacant memories. Thanks to the quick intervention and work of many dedicated individuals and organizations, the historic Maeser School stands possibly even a little more upright and dignified today than it did a hundred years ago.
Maeser School first opened its doors to a small flood of eager children and teachers upon its completion in 1898. The school was designed by Utah architect Richard Watkins, and is a wonderful example of his civic structures built during the turn of the 20th century.
As was typical with Watkins's work, the Maeser School has an exterior of two-toned brick (light tan and rust red) and a revival Romanesque-style design characterized by its solid mass, symmetrical shape, rectangular piers and round decorative arches. The cost of the building at the time of completion was $8,661.45.
The original design of the building was much smaller and very square, as was typical for many early schoolhouses. It was built on the southeast quarter of what is now known as the Maeser School Block, and took up the majority of the acquired lot, leaving little area for children to play.
Provo magnate Charles Loose lived west of the newly built school and, as historian Robert Carter recently discovered, he was quick to notice the lack of a playground. Loose purchased the quarter lot just north of the school and deeded it to the board of education on Nov. 11, 1898, to be used for such a purpose. This gift was well received by grateful teachers and exuberant children.
In 1912, feeling the need for expansion, an addition was added onto the north side of the Maeser School, which doubled the size of the structure. The conformity and design of the original building was maintained and the new addition blended in flawlessly with the old. In 1957, a gymnasium was also built separate from the school on the north end of Maeser Block, again lengthening the sprawling structure.
Through the years
Historic buildings like the Maeser School seem to morph beyond the logistics of stone and brick to take on an actual life of their own. After sheltering thousands of children and teachers for over a century, certainly Maeser has treasured up countless stories, some of which only its silent walls remember. Yet many tidbits of information survive in the pages of history and still more live on in vivid color in the memories of those whose lives brushed through the beautiful old building.
Opening day for Maeser School was Nov. 9, 1898. According to the "Maeser School History," 1,200 children, teachers and school officials sat on the platform in front of the school as a program was given in honor of its opening. Prominent Utah educator and Brigham Young Academy icon Karl Maeser (for whom the school was named) gave a dedicatory prayer and blessed the building, teachers and students who would labor under its roof.
On Nov. 9, 1900, two years after Maeser School's dedication, Karl Maeser again visited the school and on this occasion wrote sentiments on chalkboards in the four classrooms. School officials were impressed with his words and decided to leave the quotes on the boards. Eventually, the sayings were covered in Plexiglas and, amazingly, still remain intact and on display at Maeser today, thanks to a team that discovered how to preserve the boards and seal the delicate chalk.
Jumping ahead a generation to the 1920s, Provo locals Marie Vincent and Ethel Tregeagle attended school together as children. Their memories of those long-ago elementary-school days remain vivid for both women today.
"I remember the Maeser School was a three-story building and I remember trudging up those long stairs, which seemed a long ways for a little kid," Vincent said. "And then every year, we had a maypole, and we'd practice in the school yards and compete with other schools. In the spring, they would cordon off Main Street and that's where they'd set up the maypole. It was a lot of fun to dance the maypole."
Tregeagle has warm feelings for the school, born of several connections -- the first being her father, S.H. Belmont, a mason who did the brick work on Maeser during its construction. Tregeagle also has her own memories and a few accompanying pictures of elementary experiences at Maeser.
"In second grade, I was in a Japanese play wearing a pretty costume with a parasol, and I was on a girls' baseball team in sixth grade," Tregeagle said.
Coming full circle, Tregeagle returned to Maeser in 2000 at the age of 89 to work as a volunteer helping Spanish children learn English.
"It was a great experience," Ethel said. "The children did need a lot of help, and they were adorable."
By the time the 1950s rolled around, Maeser School had more than 50 years of service as an elementary school. The wooden desks were worn and scratched, and the chalkboards long dusted with white chalk. The friendly old building had settled into a comfortably worn and history-rich schoolhouse.
Jackie Quist Foote attended Maeser from 1950-53 and has fond recollections of her early education.
"I have wonderful memories of my kindergarten classroom, which was on the south end of the building," Foote said. "The classroom had a beautiful, large bay window with many window panes, and I remember the wonderful warm sun shining through into that room in the fall and how it would glow on the carpet. In that classroom, I also remember our nap rugs, and the daily snack of orange juice and graham crackers."
Foote recalls playing hopscotch and jacks with friends on the porch of the south entrance of the school and "a little market across the street, on the southeast corner, which the students frequented often and a uniformed policeman whom we called 'Officer Snow.' He was posted on the sidewalk at that southeast corner of the Maeser School and would help us in crossing the busy streets to protect us from the traffic. Officer Snow was a gray-haired man and very cheerful and kind to us."
Veteran teacher Anne Willey taught at Maeser School from 1986 until its closure and shared some of the delightful memories she has from her years of teaching there.
"When I first transferred to Maeser, I was in a portable," Willey said, "and when I moved into the building, the ceilings were still very high; they hadn't lowered them to put in the air conditioning units. There was a hole in the wall, and the boilers and the heating system were in the basement, and the hot air would then come up from that hole in the wall to heat the rooms.
"I remember the kids would sometimes put their wet socks on the radiators to dry after recess," Willey said. "I remember the clanky water pipes, and they would just pound and clank and the children would say, 'There's the old ghost of Maeser makin' it known he's around!' I remember the spiral staircase going up to the attic and seeing the signatures of students who had signed their names on the wall. There was a lot of old, old names still preserved."
As the turn of the millennium neared, Maeser was commemorating its own milestone. In 1998, a celebration was organized to honor the time-weathered school's 100th birthday. A partial re-enactment of the original dedication service was performed at the County Courthouse after which those in attendance walked from the old Webster School to the Maeser School and had a candlelight ceremony in remembrance of its historic beginnings.
One can hardly talk of Maeser School without considering a timeline of teachers who made lesson plans and invented fun for young students.
Maeser certainly turned out its share of endearing and memorable teachers, of which only a few can be mentioned here. Most reminiscences as told by past students are innocent and happy, as is the tendency of a youthful memory. However, some who attended Maeser in its tender years may recall (if they were still here to ask) a pretty and kind teacher whose memory might spark a tinge of sadness.
Josephine Kellogg Beesley, a newly married school teacher and daughter of a prominent Provo judge, taught at Maeser in 1903. The following is an excerpt from her obituary, as printed in the Provo Daily Enquirer: "Mrs. Beesley taught as substitute, for she had a happy way with children. Thus she was engaged in the last day of her life. Appearing in her usual health and professing to feel well, she taught through the forenoon of Jan. 29th in the fifth grade of the Maeser School, but soon after one in the afternoon she felt a faintness and called one of the other teachers to assist her to the office. A carriage was soon obtained and she was conveyed home, but the action of her heart continued very low and her temperature also, until she passed away at one in the morning at the age of thirty years."
Beesley was one of the first and youngest teachers to pass forever from Maeser's doors.
Students Vincent and Tregeagle still remember feelings toward some of their instructors who taught a generation later during the '20s.
"One teacher that I remember very well was Gertrude Page," Vincent said. "She was a wonderful teacher, rather matronly, but a lovely lady, and you always felt good and secure when you were a little kid because Gertrude Page was there. In the fifth grade, I had a man teacher by the name of Feldstedt, and I fell in love with him. He was young and, if I remember, he had red hair. And at the end of the school year, when he was in his classroom, I went in and kissed him on the cheek."
Tregeagle also recalls several of her teachers, including Kate Mathews, Ms. Farrer, a "stern" Mr. Bjergaard, and Ms. Bagley, her fifth-grade teacher, who took her class on a hike to "temple hill" where BYU campus now is.
Foote also recalls her kindergarten teacher from 1950.
"Our teacher was a Miss Clark, and I loved her," Foote said. "At singing time, we would all gather at the old upright piano and Miss Clark would play the piano while we children sang and did actions to songs like 'Jumbo Elephant' and'Mr. Jack-O'-Lantern.' "
Willey taught for the last 16 years that Maeser School was in operation, and has her own memories and perspectives from that of a teacher.
"What I liked best about Maeser is that it was a neighborhood school and the children were of quite a diversity of backgrounds and nationalities," Willey said. "It is a gorgeous building. It just seemed like there was a history there and the children wanted to know about it, and they were proud of the fact that it had so much history and depth of education. There was an ownership that the children seemed to feel. It [Maeser] is very endearing."
Rescue and restoration
In 2002, due to dwindling enrollment and financial challenges, the Provo School Board made the decision to close Maeser School -- which by then had been in operation for an impressive 103 years. Educator Willey shared the mutual feelings of many staff and students at the decision.
"We were sad. We were torn," Willey said. "We knew a new building was needed, but we didn't want the building torn down. We wanted it preserved and didn't know how we could manage school and preserve the old building."
When school let out that May, a final farewell celebration was given at the school. The lights were shut off and the last student walked out the double doors. For the first time in over a century, the halls of Maeser School fell silent indefinitely. After years of activity and youthful noise, the silence must have been deafening. The school sat vacant and the fate of Maeser teetered in the balance as the district mulled over the future of the building -- then decided it would be demolished if no viable idea and funds for use were presented by July 15, 2004.
Doug Carlson, executive director of Provo City Housing Authority, became aware of the Maeser School closure and controversy surrounding its fate. The organization decided to take action and find a way to purchase the building.
"We knew the level of concern in the community about its closing, and we felt that it presented us with an opportunity to preserve the building and actually achieve multiple objectives," Carlson said. "The Housing Authority is interested in affordable housing and we thought it would be an excellent property to convert to rental apartments for low-income seniors. We were interested in restoring the building and its historical integrity, and we were also interested in things that would revitalize the neighborhood."
Part of that revitalization included subdividing available land around the building for development of single-family homes.
Funds were obtained from multiple sources and Provo Housing purchased the Maeser School in June 2004, saving it from ruin. Renovation started with tearing down the 1957 gymnasium addition and then began the arduous task of restoring, updating, and converting the school to 31 senior apartments. While removing the venting ducts during renovation, workers found old relics like marbles, packages of gum, candy cigarettes and other such novelties, still well preserved, that had been dropped (either accidentally or on purpose to avoid trouble with a teacher) down the vents. The relics are charming reminders of bygone days and are now on display inside the Maeser School.
Construction on the school progressed as planned, with only a few hiccups -- like the 100-year-old land deed from Loose that cropped up on the playground land -- and the Maeser School came out shining like a new penny upon its completion in November 2006.
The Maeser restoration was recognized nationally and won several state awards for maintaining the historical integrity of the building and for its adaptive reuse. A beautiful and proud, old but new, Maeser School was ready to serve a new use.
A new purpose
A fulfilled kind of sentiment seems to pervade the air around and inside the newly renovated Maeser School Apartments.
The grounds are landscaped and well kept. The wide halls are quiet, but contentedly so. The 31 apartments inside the school are tastefully done and each unique from the next. Accommodations for residents include a community room for gatherings and an in-house laundromat.
Pauline Johnson, a Maeser School Apartments resident, has lived there since its opening in November 2006, and has been pleased with her situation. With vaulted ceilings in some rooms and beautifully paned windows throughout, Johnson's apartment seems to reflect the past with friendly welcome.
"I love looking out the windows," Johnson said. "That's the first thing I do when I get up every morning."
Zions Bank did a story in its community magazine wherein the renovated Maeser School was featured, and as part of that article, Zions sponsored a special tour of the new building for past teachers. Willey toured the new Maeser School Apartments and remarked, "It just reeked of memories, of love, of warmth, just of old."
Somehow, it seems appropriate that historic Maeser School long sheltered young children under its roof and now houses senior residents. After all, it is the very old who most often stop to recall the memories and feelings of how it was to be very young. Perhaps even some elderly folks who attended Maeser School as children will find a welcome reunion and home within its walls in the coming years.
Call it sentimental, but this writer can't help but wonder if sometimes the wide halls of Maeser School don't still vibrate with the faint clanging of a recess bell signaling the end of another fall school day. It's often lamented, "If walls could talk." Well, even if they could, the walls of Maeser wouldn't talk, they'd laugh -- the resounding laughter of happy, childish echoes spanning a century.
A hundred-plus years separates the first student who entered Maeser School on its opening day from the last one who passed out at its closing, but you can bet that on both of those days, and from both of those children, there was laughter. And as Victor Borge said, "Laughter is the shortest distance between two people."
As long as laughter echoes inside Maeser School, the old building and those who pass through it will always feel comfortable within its sturdy frame.
• Amber Foote can be reached at 367-1394 or email@example.com.