BEMIDJI -- Linda Lemmer’s list of roadblocks faced while at the helm of the 'Old Bemidji High School Remembered' project is miles long.
As one of the preservationists trying to find a new home for an old arch -- a former entryway from the old Bemidji High School razed in 2008 -- settling on a spot for it has been trickier than expected.
- About a decade ago, there was an initial thought of incorporating it into the Bemidji Regional Event Center, but that didn't work out.
- Then, there were talks of the arch being placed over the entry to a bike path. Nope.
- In 2012, the plan was to include it as part of the labyrinth at Nymore Beach's South Shore Park -- the funding dried up and this plan discontinued.
- A few years ago, there were plans to install the arch near the site of the former high school, near the Boys and Girls Club and J.W. Smith Elementary. This also didn’t come to fruition.
And yet, the group forges on. It seems that the fifth or sixth time might be the charm for this project.
After saving the glazed terra cotta arch from destruction during the demolition of the old Bemidji High School, the group has housed it for years with hopes of resurrecting it. Now, the plan is to install the arch on the grounds of the current Bemidji High School, to the west of the main entrance.
Most of the group graduated in the BHS Class of 1964 and are passionate about preserving a part of their history.
“It’s too late to quit. When it started I think that we thought that school building was beautiful -- parts of it at least -- we thought we could save these pieces,” group member Sharon Freutel explained. “I wasn’t sure at all what we might do with them, but we couldn’t do anything with them unless we got them saved.”
The arch? It has spent the last decade living in Lemmer’s pole barn in more than 300 separate pieces. The scene looks like relics of an ancient archaeological dig.
The group envisions this arch acting as a memorial and a place where students old and young can come to relax, pose for photos or have a picnic. The new arch will memorialize the role of the old building which served the community for 79 years, and can act as a bridge linking old and new.
“We have to preserve history too. There’s not too many (buildings) left that really have meaning, and this one does,” Freutel said. “Especially to all of the alumni.”
It’s looking like things might work out this time. Now they just have a few more roadblocks to overcome before the plan can come to fruition.
Roadblock 1. Funding
“My mantra has always been if everyone who said 'it shouldn’t have been torn down' donated $10, we’d have it rebuilt in a hurry,” Lemmer said.
The reconstruction of the arch and the surrounding memorial will cost approximately $150,000, according to Lemmer. The George W. Neilson Foundation has pledged $50,0000 with $25,000 as an outright gift and the additional $25,000 as a one-to-one matching grant. Once the matching funds have been raised, re-assembly of the arch may begin.
The group was within $12,000 of the matching grant as of a few weeks ago.
Mailers have been sent out to alumni to draw in funds and support. Those who are interested in financially supporting the project may do so by donating to the project fund.
Roadblock 2. The coronavirus pandemic
Like many things, COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into well-laid plans. Hopes to bring the project before the school board -- again -- were dashed. This also affected the group’s ability to fundraise, and their hopes of debuting their new project and fundraising at the all-school reunion, which was canceled.
Roadblock 3. Location
“We were all just running out of gas,” Lemmer said of the groups' spirits prior to the new plan.
Ignoring the past locations that didn’t work out, there have been a number of issues regarding the planned arch structure at the current high school. Initially, the group wanted to have the arch placed over the existing path on the side of the school leading toward the hockey arena.
It was determined the path was too wide to do so, due to the lack of access for snowplows and other maintenance vehicles.
After other locations were tossed around -- some to make the arch more visible from the highway -- the group now aims to place the arch to the west of the entryway at the high school, which should work, pending permits and approvals.
“This location, the one that we finally settled on, is going to be more conducive to that kind of visibility when you’re at the high school,” Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Tim Lutz said.
Roadblock 4. Permits and approvals
The group does not yet have school board approval, but Freutel clarified that this means they aren’t just steamrolling ahead without permission, they have had support for school officials along the way.
Superintendent Lutz is supportive of the project, citing that the arch has the potential “to blend the old with the new.”
He said the group will probably present the matter to the school board in a few months.
“They have a few more things to do probably before it’ll be ready to present. First, they have to present it to the facilities committee of the school,” Lutz explained. “What kinds of maintenance and who will be doing that would be good to talk through, and also they’ll need to come up with one or two permits probably from the city and the joint planning board.”
“I don’t see any roadblocks from that point on,” he added. “I think it’s a really nice way to remember and memorialize the excellent education that has been here for so long in Bemidji and to remember the old school,” he said. “I see it as a nice location to beautify the area and to be a place where pictures could be taken, class pictures, senior pictures, class reunion pictures.
“I think it will be a really nice addition to the high school that will link the past to the present and the future.”
More information about the project can be found at the group’s Facebook page, Old Bemidji High School Remembered.