This 85-year-old school saved by the community stands up to the needs of Wykoff – Post Bulletin

WYKOFF, Minn. — Questions like “Do you want to close Wykoff School?” or “Can you imagine letting this building go?” stirred up Wykoff a few years ago, the community came with an answer: Wykoff Commons Fitness and Recreation Center.

Yes, it’s an exercise space, but board members describe the 68,000-square-foot building as a family space, a reminder of the school’s history, an event space and a popular concession stand. They just want the community to continue using the building.

“It was a huge asset for the community, for the neighborhood. When we look at all that has been invested in this facility over 85 years… and then we just see the facility thrown away. I think that was a motivating factor for all of us,” said Mark Burmeister, secretary/treasurer of the Wykoff Commons board. “Because something like this would never be built in a city like this. It’s a $25 million project. But it’s here, it’s here for the people here.”

This is a building that the board believes should be preserved and repurposed, and the community is proud of this building and its history. Many of the nonprofit’s volunteers attended the K-12 school that became Kingsland Middle School, and event advertisers support the building’s transformation.

In the old and new parts of the school, project materials are stored in former classrooms and valuable pieces of history are reused. A green-tiled corridor with nine rooms could offer apartments. The gym is bustling with concerts, athlete demonstrations and meetings. The stove is located between chairs and tables, with pipes directed into nearby rooms and corridors. Clouds are reflected in new windows surrounded by pieces of cardboard in the kindergarten space. As board members described, other areas were torn apart.

“We are in the process of putting new windows into the kindergarten,” said volunteer Rich Ramaker. Working on a construction site. “We wanted to save some bricks and mortar… and in all these years, you never run into anything as difficult as it is. It was amazing. It is a very well-built school.”

Burmeister said the Wykoff School at 201 West Bartlett St. was built by the Works Progress Administration in 1939 and the five sections were eventually “connected together” by 1986. The cornfield next to the school remained until 1975, when a gymnasium and three classrooms were added, said Vice President Dan Schmidt and board member Maggie Ramaker. In 2018, the building was moved from the school and the community planned for its future. It was bought by Rod Thompson and Rick Stockman. The Board also thanks a long list of people, from founder Tom Eickhoff to Duane Krahn, Wayne Frank, David Stoeger and countless other community volunteers.

At the fitness center’s launch, Burmeister said it was “interesting timing” when it closed in September 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The center currently has approximately 150 members, and members have an access code to the building, which is open daily from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.

“We were looking for something that would both help the community and help fund the maintenance and utilities of the building,” Burmeister said. “We felt a fitness center was something that was needed.”

One of the fitness rooms at Wykoff Commons on Wednesday, May 15, 2024 in Wykoff.

Rebecca Mitchell / Mail Bulletin

As she looked through her dream list, Maggie Ramaker found several aspects to be “open-ended.” You can visit the school museum, shop at the market, play pickleball, rent books and go to the dinner theater. The old gymnasium, known in the community for its stone walls and wooden floors, is regularly rented by St. Martin’s Lutheran School. Johns.

Companies rent office and warehouse space, and people organize events such as birthday parties, banquets, concerts and professional wrestling. The new day care center, located in a former home economics classroom, will open in the fall. Board members have taken the time to support the center, but each new activity or service attracts more people. Burmeister believes their greatest asset is space, so they welcome event ideas and rental opportunities.

“The biggest thing about our rural towns is that they’re economically depressed, so you’re always trying to figure out how you’re going to be able to provide something that the community needs and can afford. Because we’re talking about day care and we still don’t know if we can afford it,” said board president Eva Barr.

Rich Ramaker said they couldn’t imagine losing the school building. However, building maintenance costs and declining student enrollment led to the district’s decision to transfer students to Spring Valley. The Spring Valley and Wykoff school districts merged into Kingsland in the 1990s. Until it closed, Wykoff School served fourth, fifth and sixth grade students.

“There has been a lengthy building survey going on in the district over the last several years,” former Kingsland Superintendent John McDonald said in 2017. The building was decommissioned, including its HVAC systems and kitchen equipment. “It comes down to finances and being able to provide the best education possible for our students.”

People came together to “save it for the community,” as Barr described. These included groups such as Citizens United for Kingsland and Wykoff by Design, which focused on community needs.

As surrounding communities faced similar questions and struggles, they joined the chorus of small towns wondering the fate of their former school buildings. Kingsland Primary School was demolished in 2011; in 2007, the Lanesboro School changed its name to Church Hill School Condominiums; The Roscoe Township School House currently serves as the Old School Cafe; The Chatfield Center for the Arts showcases the school’s former architecture; and Fountain Elementary School continues as the Fillmore County Historical Society.

“It’s a phenomenon: abandoned rural school buildings — they’re everywhere and communities don’t know what to do with them,” Barr said.

A historic photo of the former school at the Wykoff School Museum on Wykoff Commons on Wednesday, May 15, 2024, in Wykoff.

Rebecca Mitchell / Mail Bulletin

The spirit of the Wykoff School lives on in two purple-and-yellow-clad classrooms run by the Wykoff Historical Society. Rich Ramaker remembers running up the stairs to class when the original building was three stories high. Another fondly remembered event is a group of alumni playing on the basketball team in a 1950s movie.

“We still see and visit some of the teachers who taught here. Even the class reunions that we organize, where we invite some of the teachers, they like to come back and watch,” Schmidt said.

The progress of projects is a common sight, whether you pull over or stop to watch from the red car. From the gymnasium floor to the boilers, Burmeister said, “We had to search the country for equipment that would work in our facility, but also that we could afford.”

Community members are also constantly thinking about items they can donate, or even give away items purchased at auction to support the center. They want to keep the building operational, Schmidt and Burmeister said.

“The work put in by the community is much more valuable than the dollars we would have to spend to conduct the survey,” said Maggie Ramaker. “We just say this is what we want to do, find people in the community who have done it in their careers, know how to do it, and they all get together, bring their tools and work belts, start pounding or sawing and putting it together everything together.”

The boiler problems that plagued the neighborhood remain, and reopening each area requires heating and cooling planning. The project costs are the same as purchasing the building. Barr said, “We did it on a string.” They purchased the building for $30,000 with additional heating and cooling projects and a new gymnasium floor for $25,000 each. Everything happens with the support of the community.

The nonprofit also received a $50,000 grant from the Blandin Foundation in 2022, which it plans to use toward a commercial kitchen remodel. Again, they have a community plan in mind: supporting a preschool, offering kitchen space to businesses, and hosting meals for the community.

Burmeister said “the community has invested in this facility for many decades and now they can get something out of it instead of just making it worse.” Barr said she sees philanthropists as a way to help support the costs of renovating and maintaining existing buildings in small towns. Board members even suggested Melinda Gates and Tim Penny as benefactors.

Windows of the Wykoff Commons building with signs around them, Friday, May 24, 2024, in Wykoff.

Lily Dozier / Mail Bulletin

“We’re doing everything as economically as possible because we don’t have the funds,” Burmeister said. “The way the school district would run this building, they would spend 10 times more.”

Whether it’s a sports performance, a Christian concert or a murder mystery event, Rich Ramaker said the House of Commons “brings everyone to town.” The athletes’ shows, organized over two days in February for three years, are the largest event attended by approximately 1,100 people. The town of Wykoff is also attracting people with its own project: the historic Wykoff Jail Haus, where you can stay overnight via Airbnb.

“There are a lot of things we do that I think benefit the community,” Burmeister said. “Sometimes we come here at night and it’s two or three families running around shooting baskets, playing games, and it’s nice to see that.”

It’s the people who walk 13 laps or meet for morning exercise that put a smile on the board: the building is filled with purpose.

“I think these events are good and I think we need them, but I think it’s the daily presence or just maintaining a presence and keeping the building alive that’s really remarkable,” Barr said. “The most exciting thing is coming here on Saturdays when I’m cleaning and people are at the fitness center and the gym. As if people were using it so that the building wouldn’t look lonely, empty and longing.”

Wykoff Commons board members will sit in the gymnasium bleachers in the Wykoff Commons building on Friday, May 24, 2024 in Wykoff.

Lily Dozier / Mail Bulletin

On Wednesday, May 15, 2024, a new child care facility will be constructed at Wykoff Commons.

Rebecca Mitchell / Mail Bulletin

Visitors who once attended the school sign at the Wykoff School Museum in Wykoff Commons, pictured Wednesday, May 15, 2024, in Wykoff.

Rebecca Mitchell / Mail Bulletin

The Works Progress Administration built the old portion of the former school that is now the Wykoff Commons Fitness and Recreation Center, as seen Wednesday, May 15, 2024, in Wykoff.

Rebecca Mitchell / Mail Bulletin

An open Wykoff Commons window reflects the cloudy sky on Friday, May 24, 2024 in Wykoff.

Lily Dozier / Mail Bulletin

Wykoff School memorabilia at the Wykoff School Museum in Wykoff Commons, Wednesday, May 15, 2024.

Rebecca Mitchell / Mail Bulletin