It’s easy to see why Monticello fifth grade teacher Kathy White will have trouble letting go of the Old Washington school building.
“It’s been a part of my life since I was six years old,” said White, who attended first through fourth grades in the stately, 1894 structure that is scheduled for demolition this summer.
That’s a pretty good run for a building that started with controversy over whether to use kiln-run bricks or spend 50 cents more per thousand for “first-grade brick.”
“The directors explained that by using better brick, the building would probably last 40 or 50 years,” said Angie O’Brien, another fifth grade teacher who spent her formative years in Old Washington and now teaches in one of the same rooms where she was a student.
“I am very glad they went with the better brick! Old Washington is now 125 years old,” added O’Brien.
An open house to allow the public one last walk through of the building – originally a high school but one that has housed every grade level during its storied history – will be held from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 20.
Dedicated in December of 1894, the three-level, brick structure, complete with a tower on top, was dubbed “a modern school house with all the latest in improvements,” in an article published in The Piatt County Republican on Dec. 6 of 1894.
Also called “A Grand Edifice” and “The Pride of the County Capital,” original Washington was dedicated at an 1894 ceremony that “despite the fog and rain, the afternoon exercises were attended by a crowd which taxed the capacity of the rooms and spacious corridors of the new building,” according to the newspaper story.
Addresses were made by dignitaries that included O.W. Moore, J.H. Martin, Charles McIntosh and the Illinois Board of Education Superintendent.
Well over a century later, those “first-grade” bricks are holding fast, but in some ways time is starting to pass the building by.
“It doesn’t have enough power outlets,” said School Superintendent Vic Zimmerman, noting a need for such infrastructure in an increasing technological age. “It’s not ADA accessible, and we’d probably need to start over on the bathrooms, those types of things.”
It is also located in a spot that is needed for a 14-classroom addition and new gymnasium that are part of a large renovation project being undertaken by the school district.
White, who taught for 15 years at “Old Wash” and now teaches in the newer portion of the elementary school, is doing her best to talk herself into liking the idea of new classrooms, commenting it is rare for educators to “get new stuff.”
“I’m looking forward to the future,” said the 20-year educator.
But White is not sure how she will handle it when the demolition of Old Washington begins in July.
“I can’t really believe it until I see it, because it’s such a big fixture on this campus, and it just felt like home when I taught there. I taught in classrooms that I learned in as a kid. It just made it special,” added White.
O’Brien still teaches in elementary classrooms she was taught in, and has been trying to “savor every moment this year of being in this building. I am very sad that an important historical piece of our community will no longer be a part of Monticello’s landscape after this summer.”
Both teachers attended class there in the early ‘70s, and they rave about the size of the classrooms, as well as the format of the rooms which surround a central commons on each floor, making collaboration more natural.
Its rooms measure around 900 square feet, about twice as large as most in the new Washington wing. The new rooms being constructed will come close to Old Washington sizes at 825 square feet.
“For a few years, another teacher and I combined our students and we taught together in my classroom. We were often observed by U of I students and even written about in educational journals. It was one of the most educationally powerful experiences of my career,” said O’Brien.
“The whole setup of that building is so conducive to learning,” added White. “On the flip side, being a teacher there, oh my gosh it is a wonderful building to teach in.”
The layout also made for the occasional practical joke. White raves about the large coat closets, and chuckles about the day she rigged a mannequin arm to scare a colleague.
Every grade level has been taught at Old Wash, which started as Monticello Township High School in 1894. It was built next to the South Side School, which was then used for elementary grades and later as a residence, according to county Sanborn Maps of the period.
When the new Monticello High School was ready for occupancy in 1923, MTHS was renamed Washington School and has served mostly elementary grades since that time, although it was a middle school for a few years as well.
The building was vacant from about 1958 to 1962, then renovated – including removal of the bell tower roof – and took its place once again as a Monticello elementary school.
It became Old Washington when new classrooms went up in the late 1950s, opening in 1958.
Research done by O’Brien also shows the school cost about $14,000 to build some 125 years ago.
The dedication ceremony in 1894 was a grand ceremony, complete with speeches, music, and a banquet featuring blue points on the half shell, young roast pig, roast turkey stuffed with chestnuts, chicken salad, iced cream, coffee and Bent’s Crackers.
Time nearing an end
Zimmerman appreciates the valiant brick edifice.
“It is one of the original schools built in Monticello, and it’s got a lot of history and means a lot to a lot of people. It’s served the district very well from 1894 when it opened until now. They kept it up and it worked well, but it needs a lot of upgrades and it’s time for it to go.”
White, whose windows in New Washington afford her a view of her elementary school stomping grounds, is not ready for that reality.
“I will never forget the staircases, just how massive they were when I was little. How big, and huge and grand they were,” she said.
One of the last things she will do is walk in into Old Washington and take a deep breath.
“To smell it, because it reminds me of some really wonderful things in my life, from childhood up until adulthood,” she added.
O’Brien may not be able to watch those high-achieving, 125-year-old bricks come tumbling down.
“Honestly I am not sure that I will be able watch the demolition of Old Wash. The loss will feel like an old friend is passing away.”
Old Washington Open House
When: 6 to 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 20
Where: Old Washington school, corner of Charter Street and Sage Drive, Monticello
What: Self-guided tours, refreshments will be served
Note: Due to liability issues, members of the public will not be allowed to take items from the school.
The Journal-Republican thanks the following people for helping with the research for this article: Buzz Sievers of the Monticello school district; and Dee Lund of the Piatt County Historical and Genealogical Society.