South Square Celebrates 90th Birthday

Betsy Kirby (’00) and her husband Tom Kirby of “Betsy and the Gents” performed for South Square’s 90th/1st birthday celebration. EJ Photo/Alexander Schmidt

It’s safe to say nobody could have foreseen in 1928 that the closet in room 101, which was then the first grade classroom of the St. Ansgar Public School building, would eventually be plumbed for a hand-washing sink to comply with health code regulations for the non-profit coffee shop that would eventually inhabit the classroom. 

But as far back as living memory goes, the water line that went to the closet was never utilized. For ninety years of this building’s existence, this water line was just waiting for South Square to come along. 

It was meant to be. 

The story of South Square starts with the story of St. Ansgar’s founding, when a ‘North Square’ (now Clausen City Park) and ‘South Square’ were set aside in the city’s original platting in 1853, for public space. 

The 32,000 square foot building at 202 South Washington Street in St. Ansgar was built in 1928, designed by the architect Oren R. Thomas, who one year later would go on to design Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

The building, built 90 years ago, had served as the K-12 building for the small Iowa district from the 1920s up until 1959 when the new high school was built and the building housed the elementary until its closure in 2015, when that campus was expanded and K-12 once again was consolidated to one campus.  

The building has for one year been inhabited by the nonprofit organization South Square, the board comprised of Ashley DeMaris, Tyler McKinley and Amanda Kimber; but collectively is made up of the many community of volunteers and benefactors that play a part in any way of keeping the building occupied and running.

South Square, circa 1940.

This weekend, a team of those same South Square volunteers gave back to the community in celebration of the project’s one year anniversary of taking ownership of the building, as well as also celebrating the ninetieth anniversary as a structure. 

Serving up an event with a free-will donation meal of sandwiches, chips and delicious anniversary cake, the board and the volunteers thanked the public for their work towards this shared the goal of providing community space in this historic building. 

Emceed by Bill Carlson, familiar to the scene as he served as elementary principal for many years, the event kicked off with words from DeMaris and McKinley, both conveying astonishment at the amount of community support and interest that’s brought the project this far one year later, that came about from “needing a community space to do community things, and we have provided that in spades.”, DeMaris said. 

Darren Bulow (’85) now a resident of Wyoming, brought his comedic storytelling to South Square, reflecting on fond memories of growing up a block away from the school and, in his words, “constantly falling off the playground equipment”. EJ Photo/Alexander Schmidt

Betsy (Neerhof) Kirby, (’00) and her husband Tom took the stage and entertained the crowd with their renditions of singer-songwriter favorites, along with an original song Kirby specially penned for the occasion. An emotional tribute to the walls and halls surrounding the place where Betsy “sang her very first solo”, (but also gaining raucous applause with the line “but now it’s far better, because now we’ve got beer”) she ended by leading the crowd in a proud verse of “When the Saints go Marching in”. 

Darren Bulow, (’85) traveling from Wyoming, then entertained the crowd with his comedic storytelling, reflecting on his life growing up just blocks from the elementary school in St. Ansgar, “falling off this very stage many times”. Bulow shared stories of his sometimes unlucky, but always hilarious experiences as a hunter, fisherman, self-described “crazy dog person” and dedicated husband who is “always a dutiful shoe shopping partner”.  

The event concluded with raffles of donated items and a live auction of two Vikings-Packer tickets, fundraising provided with help from sponsors St. Ansgar State Bank, Farmer’s State Bank, OmniTel, City Limits, St. Ansgar Insurance, Focus Insurance, Thrivent and Thymeless Treasures. 

The South Square board (and, in effect the community) needs to decide early January 2019 whether or not the community has repurposed the school building successfully in order to keep the building from being demolished. 

That agreement sets aside $125,000 for demolition costs should the building be abandoned for six months prior to the end of the agreement by October 1, 2019. The Iowa DNR Demolition Grant is also only available for buildings that have been abandoned for six months, thus creating the deadline of January 2019 as the “go/no go” date to deciding whether or not to continue with the project.

South Square’s new logo.

Community donations and benefactors, along with more than $10,000 in grants has kept the project close to their budget, and the building’s former classrooms are nearly all occupied, with the rental calendar continuing to be filled with events of all sorts, from BINGO to graduations to business gatherings and private parties and get-togethers.

In 1928, students were readying for the inaugural school year in this beautiful new brick building. Now, with that same and brick and mortar still intact ninety years later, with the roots of the idea that this space would always be shared by the public, our community continues to grow South Square as a space for all to learn, gather and grow our community, together.

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