September 18, 2015
Macalester-Groveland, Merriam Park, Lex-Ham
From out of the patchy grey sky came intermittent sprinkles and the threat of heavier precipitation, but none of that was enough to keep me from my 2 p.m. appointment. Working in my favor was the ride wasn’t long, so I’d make it, even in a big downpour. More on that meeting in a moment.
As regular readers know, I brake for peculiarity, eccentricity, quirkiness, rarity and idiosyncrasy. I’m still unsure under which the boulevard display at 193 Griggs Street North fits, but I did stop.
My 2 o’clock meeting was fewer than three blocks away, at Saint Paul Central High School, the oldest high school in Minnesota. Central is known to most Saint Paulites, in part because of its long, rich history, but also from the grim exterior that some say resembles a prison.
What is so egregious about Central’s appearance is that, until its four-year renovation from 1977 through 1981, it’s castle-like design (by Central alumnus Clarence H. Johnston) and hilltop perch above Lexington Avenue made it one of the Minnesota’s most beautiful high schools.
As you can see on the building permit taken out in 1910 (below), the school was to be named Lexington High School after the street on which it faced. However, alumni lobbied the school board to carry the name Central from the Downtown location. The nickname, the Minutemen, was chosen to honor the soldiers who fought in the Battle of Lexington and Concord during the Revolutionary War.
As the story goes, the “Collegiate Gothic” building was gutted and its interior concrete frame reused for the new school. However, I’d been told that parts of the original brick exterior from the Clarence Johnston Sr.-designed 1912 building still exist. My ride to Central was to meet with the school’s longest-serving current employee, who agreed to take me thorough Central to show me its secrets, including the hidden exterior.
Custodian John Gelao walked into Saint Paul Central High School for his first day of work on November 7, 1979 and he’s been there ever since. “Why I stayed here I don’t know. The place just fascinated me when I came in here. The first couple days I did not like the school. The first couple days I just wanted to get out of here. I just couldn’t get used to it. It was so big, different. Then I said, ‘I’m gonna stick it out here.’ The construction was fascinating. I wanted to see what the place was going to look like when it was finished and I stuck it out, and everything worked out good.”
John, in his mid-50s, remains youthful-looking with a full head of dark brown hair mixed with a few streaks of grey. Most impressive is John’s amazing memory, which revealed itself frequently throughout our tour and interview.
The reconstruction of Central was about halfway done when John began working at Central. Classes continued during construction, so custodians often shuttled classrooms, according to John. “We had a head guy, Ray McCormick. He used to give us a bunch of notes of what we had to do. We had rooms we had to move out or put together. We worked right around the construction company. So some days we did five rooms; some days we did one only; some days we didn’t do any. Whenever they got done we had to move the rooms out, put them in new classrooms and move some other ones back into the small closets.”
John’s most memorable episode during construction was a fire on May 13, 1980. On that morning, John was sent by his boss up to the third floor. “So me and Gary Mogol – he passed away; we walked up there (to the third floor.) We didn’t have the elevator at the time so we walked up stairwell E. We could smell stuff and then we heard some cracking. So Mogol says, ‘Don’t go any farther.’ And I said, ‘We got something going on.’ We seen the smoke coming up so we went over and pulled the fire alarm. That was at 8:52 a.m. The fire alarm went off; all the kids got out OK.”
John continued, “By the time the fire department came that whole north side was out of control. They had two rooms full of furniture ceiling high. Once the desks and that got on fire, it was out of control. It got so hot in there the windows just melted down. Same on the fourth floor; the windows melted down.”
The wind-aided fire damaged or destroyed some of the white metal panels on the building’s exterior, according to John. “I think we had a northeast wind that morning and the fire just followed each panel all the way down. A lot of them were hanging down; a couple of them did come off and hit the ground. If anything was underneath them, it would have done a lot of damage.”
Investigators determined quickly that the blaze was intentionally set, in part because it was the fourth fire within a week. The fire did more than a million dollars in damage and set the renovation back six months.
At the time, the word around Central was the fires were started by one of the construction workers, according to John. “I don’t know how true it is – back in those days, we used to have 8-track stereos. His got stolen out of the car. That was the revenge he was going to do to the school, I guess.”
Another incident during construction involved a crew of welders working in the cafeteria. At the end of each day, hoses connecting the welding torch in the cafeteria and a large compressor in the parking lot needed to be taken outside. The welders ignored multiple requests to take the dirty, heavy hoses out each night, so that job fell to the custodians. Taking the hoses out required an extra 20 minutes of work for the custodians. After a while, the custodians forced the issue, which according to John, prompted a call from his boss. “McCormick called me at home and said, ‘What happened?’ I said, ‘I’m getting sick and tired of these guys. We gotta drag down those big, heavy hoses every night to lock up the place. We asked them in a nice way to take down the equipment so we can lock up the school. We took the little welder out of the machine so they couldn’t start it.’ They were mad at us but they got over it.”
Though universally panned today, the completion of Central High’s remodeling was greeted with great excitement, according to John. “Everybody wanted to see what it was like. It was a showpiece for the city.”
With John’s uncanny memory, it is no surprise he remembers many people who have passed through the halls of Central during his four decades there. He mentioned there have been 11 head custodians, all of whom he’s gotten along with, during his tenure. (I didn’t ask John to name them, but I have nary a doubt he would have done it.)
He also remembers some students. “There was a girl named Stephanie Cummings. She always had a smile on her. Every morning she did. She was a 1983 grad. She was here a couple years ago selling something up in the cafeteria. She looked at me and said, ‘You still working here? I went here as a kid.’ I said, ‘I know your name.’ She said, ‘How do you remember me?’ I said, ‘You were just one of them kids you used to smile at everything and I remember you just by your smile.’ She was flattered.”
Another student John mentioned was a ’93 graduate. “Shane Martz lived across the street. He was a 1993 grad. He was always a character in the hallways. He was one of them kids who wouldn’t go to class. I told him to get in class and learn something and he did. He graduated and I think he’s a Special Ed teacher.”
Our next stop, somewhere deep inside Central, was the long-closed shooting range. “They closed that up in ’64. Kids could take that for class.”
The most intact vestige from the 1912 building is the old cafeteria, which is now a storage area for tables, chair, and a conglomeration of who-knows-what.
Less than a quarter of the old cafeteria remains – on two levels – but it’s enough to imagine the energy and noise of hundreds of students eating and socializing. “The seniors could sit up on top,” according to John, “and all the sophomores and juniors had to sit down below.”
According to SPPS spokesperson Jerry Skelly, many of the videotapes on the shelves are from a show called “Your Schools Today” that was produced by KTCA and Saint Paul Public Schools between about 1968 to 1974.
We followed an old stairway down, out of the cafeteria mezzanine, and into the boiler room.
What was once a doorway between the old cafeteria and the boiler room was covered with blocks, which John explained. “We took the trash and dumped it right into the incinerator. It’s been gone since about 1990. Kids would complain about smoke. The fan units were bringing the stuff into the school. If you got a west wind it went right over the units, so they had to get rid of the incinerator, so we just trash everything outside now.”
Then, up to the current cafeteria, which was originally the main office.
After that quick stop, we weaved down a couple of hallways, through some locked doors, and into a narrow, dimly lit room cluttered with boxes, metal shelves and racks holding band uniforms and hats.
Behind the shelves a 10 foot tall cement block wall ran nearly from the floor to ceiling. The concrete block wall dominated the cramped room so it took some time to dawn on me that I was laying my eyes on a portion of the exterior of the original building. The concrete block replaced the panes of glass in the old windows during the 1979 reconstruction and expansion. The realization of seeing – and touching – the 1912 building is difficult to put into words, but I believe more than ever that more was lost than a building.
The former locker room was the last of the secret sites of old Central High, but there was more to see.
Our final stop of note was on the top floor, in a small jumbled office with enough furniture and wall decorations for a room at least twice the size.
John explained, “That’s the area where ‘the castle’ was at. That was like a small office. They had a table, a file. That’s where they had meetings at. They had one big window and you could look out on Lexington.”
Meanwhile, efforts began in 2011 to improve the Central campus and atmosphere through a community organization called Transforming Central. Noticeably better landscaping and storm water management, and the addition of outdoor classroom are some of the obvious enhancements, there’s more coming. Click here for more about Transforming Central.
The hours that John Gelao spent revealing to me the secrets of Central High School and sharing stories of his time there flew past. Writing this allowed me to enjoy it all again. It was a gift to see the remaining fragments of the 1912 building, and to know that a small portion of that the grand building survives.
Here is the map of my ride on September 18, 2015.
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