Bell Museum’s relocation endangers historic school

The historic Gibbs School closed its doors in 1959, and its fate lies in third-party funding.

by Alex Amend

In 1873, one year after the Bell Museum was established by state legislative mandate, Heman Gibbs donated a piece of farmland for a one-room schoolhouse at what is currently the southwest corner of Cleveland and Larpenteur Avenues in Falcon Heights, Minn.

Nearly 134 years later, the relic of early pioneer education could be razed to make way for the expansion and relocation of the Bell Museum, slated for completion in 2010.

The Gibbs School, as it is now known, suffered neglect and even arson since it closed its doors to students in 1959.

Its current fate rests in the hands of the University, which owns the property, and preservation advocacy groups like the Ramsey County Historical Society and the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota.

According to a University Position Statement, the University has no intention of using the Gibbs School in the Bell Museum relocation plan and is willing to let a responsible third party relocate the structure.

The lone guardian

Mike Connolly, a University alumnus, has been involved with the preservation of the Gibbs School since he was a student in the early 1990s.

“I saw it in the news and chose to get involved,” he said.

Connolly joined a citizen’s committee that petitioned the University to repair damage caused by a fire in 1990. The University then was planning on destroying the building altogether.

Since then, Connolly has been the main representative of the schoolhouse, talking with advocacy groups, seeking donors and making estimates with construction outfits.

“The only realistic option to save the building at this point is if the Minnesota State Legislature allocates funds to move and restore the building to either the Gibbs Farm property or the Minnesota State Fair,” he said.

“I hope to lobby the Legislature for this funding when they consider funding the new Bell Museum for 2008.”

Connolly estimated the cost to move and restore the schoolhouse to be in excess of $100,000.

A fundamental obstacle

Connolly approached Cady Kay, executive director of the Minnesota State Fair Foundation, who expressed interest in saving the schoolhouse but said the foundation would be unable to fund the move.

“It’s worthy of preservation from the State Fair Foundation’s perspective,” she said.

Falcon Heights Mayor Susan Gehrz expressed similar feelings on the fate of the schoolhouse.

“The city does not have any resources to assist in the move,” she said. “It has to be done privately.”

Ted Lau, manager at the Gibbs Museum, said fundraising is necessary for anything to be done about the schoolhouse.

“Some people raised funds for the repairs in 1991, and it could be done again,” he said.

Recently, Connolly was asked to nominate the Gibbs School for the Minnesota Preservation Alliance’s annual 10 Most Endangered Historic Properties, a list that that helped save the Sears Building and Washburn A. Mill, now the Mill City Museum, from destruction.