Locals hope to save 77-year-old Rexburg building

Members of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers pose for a photograph in front of the old Rexburg seminary building Friday. The building, constructed in 1937, is owned by Madison School District 321 and currently sits vacant. The group is hoping to find a way to preserve the structure. Monte LaOrange / mlaorange@postregister.com

REXBURG — It was at least 64 years ago when Vernon Edstron attended seminary class each school day at the Spanish-colonial style building across the way from what was then Madison High School.

But the 82-year-old’s recollections remain clear.

“The memories I have here are very good memories,” he said.

Now, that building’s future is in limbo.

Last November, the Madison School District 321 school board voted to demolish the 77-year-old, aging structure and replace it with additional parking. The building, which has been vacant for several years, is in need of extensive and costly repair, Superintendent Geoffrey Thomas said.

This past spring, as demolition neared, members of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers became aware of the plan and gathered community support to stop it. The tear-down was halted indefinitely and the issue, put on the back burner. At this point in time, Thomas said demolition is unlikely — but that doesn’t solve the whole problem.

“I’m not sure anyone on the board or in district administration recognized there was any kind of sentimental attachment to the building,” Thomas said. “Knowing that, we’re not going to demolish the building in the foreseeable future. But at the same time, we don’t have any plans to fix the building — it’s very old and we haven’t used it for years. The cost of renovation and maintaining it is extensive … we want to direct our resources to the kids and their needs and not to maintaining an ancient structure in the district.”

History

The structure was built in 1937 by well-known Rexburg contractor Charles J. Zollinger. Zollinger led construction efforts on a number of other area buildings, including the Madison County Courthouse in 1919, according to Madison County resident historian Lowell Parkinson.

Many of those feature a similar Spanish-colonial revival-style architecture characterized by features including wrought iron detailing, red tile roofing and prominent arched windows.

“It was very unusual for the area; definitely very unique to eastern Idaho,” Parkinson said. “I think that’s really what makes it stand out.”

Until 1964, the building was used for weekday scripture classes for youths in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Over the years, Parkinson estimates thousands of LDS youth passed through its doors.

One of those was 83-year-old Nina Hathaway. She fondly remembers the year 1947, when she, along with other seminary students, took a trip to Salt Lake City for the 100th anniversary of the Mormon pioneers arriving in the Salt Lake Valley.

“It was very, very exciting,” she said. “It was my first time on the other side of Pocatello.”

In 1975, the church sold the structure to District 321. As a school district building, it mainly was used to house special services, such as the district’s special education director, speech language pathologist and school psychologist. Those programs were moved out in 2010 due to concerns about the building’s condition, Thomas said.

Since that time, it’s sat vacant.

Going forward

The district has opted not to restore the building, as repairs and maintenance costs run too high.

“We don’t want to put new wine into old bottles,” Thomas said.

Renting or leasing the structure also is unlikely, Thomas said, as the district doesn’t want to be liable for injuries.

Selling the building isn’t simple, either. It sits on about six acres of district-owned land. Thomas thinks it’s unlikely the school board would opt to sell just a small portion of that.

“We don’t want to piecemeal the property,” he said. “It would require a significant amount of money to (purchase the whole property) in order to entice the board to sell.”

The board has no plans to revisit the issue in the near future, Thomas said. So, for the time being, the building will remain vacant.

In the meantime, the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, along with Preservation Idaho, a Boise-based nonprofit that works to preserve the state’s historic structures, have teamed up in effort to find a way to preserve it.

The Daughters are currently working to raise money for an independent appraisal, member Ronalee Flansburg said. With that official valuation, Flansburg said the group will be better able to negotiate with the school board.

“We’re hoping to (eventually) make an offer to the school district that will meet what they need in the building,” she said. “They have a budget … and they do need money. We’re trying to find a way to get them the money they need — in which they could sell that piece and still be able to sell the rest of it.

If everyone just tears down old buildings and builds new ones, every town in America will start to look the same. I think it’s important for our kids to see some of our history.”

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