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The entire student body of Duluth's Lincoln School stands in front of the building in 1914, before any additions and modifications were made to the structure. The school, which opened in 1889, will close at the end of this school year. (Photo courtesy Northeast Minnesota Historical Center)

Lincoln Park School, set to close, has been heart of its neighborhood

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Lincoln Park School, set to close, has been heart of its neighborhood
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To people who grew up with it and the teachers and staff who worked there, Lincoln Park School is more than a school. It's the heartbeat of their neighborhood.


"It was our childhood," said Aileen Piering, 86, who attended Lincoln Elementary and then Lincoln Junior High in the 1930s. "Our childhood. We grew up here."

Added Karin Swor: "It IS the West End." Swor, 68, and a member of the first graduating class at what then was the "new" Lincoln Elementary in 1954, still refers to the neighborhood as the West End, as did most of the people interviewed for this story.

The original elementary school was built in 1888-89 at a cost of $52,617 and opened in 1889 with 12 rooms and a capacity of 504 students. There has been a school in the block between 24th and 25th avenues West and West Third and Fourth streets ever since, and that original building has remained at the core.

But oh, how it has changed. Additions were built in 1915, 1930, 1951, 1959, 1994 and 1999. Other construction projects occurred in 1966, 1979, 1992, 1993 and 2000. The adjacent Lincoln Junior High, which was built in 1915, closed in 1982 and was torn down in 1991.

A tower -- similar to the tower at Historic Old Central High School -- marked the original building. It was torn down so long ago that it's largely forgotten. All that remains is a stub that building engineer Rose Oja calls her "penthouse."

'It's a maze'

All of those changes give the sprawling 170,956-square-foot building plenty of character. But that comes with a cost.

"That's really what makes that building stand out, and it's not really a positive feature," said Kerry Leider, property and risk manager for the school system. "It makes it so difficult to manage logistically. There are so many stairwells and so many hidden alcoves."

Tom Spehar, a second-grade teacher at the school, said the building is particularly difficult to navigate for the many grandparents who visit. "It's a maze," he said. "It's a nightmare to walk around."

Even people who once knew the building well can get lost. "We wouldn't know where to go in this building," said Betty Berg, who went to Lincoln Junior High in the late 1930s and was the school's secretary when it closed.

Added Charles Hanson, 66, who taught at the school for more than 20 years and has kept a treasure trove of Lincoln Park School pictures and documents: "Even people that should be familiar with the building still get mixed up sometimes."

The school has been known as Lincoln Piedmont Elementary School for the past two years while a new Piedmont Elementary was under construction up the hill. The new school will be an orderly 91,000 square feet with none of the issues of its predecessor. The two student bodies were carefully brought together to smooth the transition.

"I think the kids are getting used to the idea that, yes, we are moving to a new school," said Amy Bodin, data coach for Lincoln Piedmont Elementary.

No more Elephant Rock

But there's one thing they won't be able to take with them.

"The park," said Sandy Anderson, a second-grade teacher at the school. "We're going to miss the park. We've done a lot over the years with the kids in the park."

The school is across the street from the park that gave the neighborhood its name. A favorite feature, for as long back as anyone can remember, is "Elephant Rock." As its name suggests, the rock about a block up from the school somewhat resembles an elephant, and it's big enough to hold an entire class of second-graders.

"We'd have picnic lunches on Elephant Rock," Swor said.

Thanks to its piecemeal construction, the old school comes with many quirks. In the late 1950s the school system purchased a mom-and-pop grocery store at 24th Avenue West and Fifth Street, and an addition with a swimming pool was built over it. You can still see the store's tin ceiling above the ceiling tiles of a teen center inside the school.

Exterior walls of the original school remain, but they aren't exterior walls anymore. The 1991 addition was a concourse built around portions of the 1889 school. Spehar, who has spent most of his 27-year career at Lincoln Park, takes his current second-graders through the second-floor concourse and tells them earlier second-graders used to bounce balls off that wall.

Spehar has taught the children of people he taught earlier in his career at Lincoln Park. One child in his current class is the third generation in her family to attend the school. He thinks about all of the things that have happened inside those walls.

"If these walls could talk," Spehar said during a tour of the building. "I mean, if you could pick up every hand that ever touched that hand railing. It's amazing. Everywhere you go, you run into people who went to Lincoln."