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Friday, 03 June 2016 11:28

For Williams Bay, school is more than bricks and mortar – it's heart and soul

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School days are waning for the 100-year-old Williams Bay Elementary School on Congress Street in the village. A new school is almost finished and will replace the historic halls come September. However, the building’s soon-to-be new owner says he’s considering community, educational and fine arts opportunities for the structure. School days are waning for the 100-year-old Williams Bay Elementary School on Congress Street in the village. A new school is almost finished and will replace the historic halls come September. However, the building’s soon-to-be new owner says he’s considering community, educational and fine arts opportunities for the structure. Terry Mayer

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- Principal Barb Isaacson says it’s a bittersweet goodbye she and the faculty at Williams Bay Elementary School said last Friday, June 3, the last day of classes in the building that has stood for 100 years at 139 Congress St.

Come September, students will be in a new elementary school building, connected to the Williams Bay Middle/High School at 500 W. Geneva St., on the west end of the village. 

“It’s like home,” Isaacson said of the old brick school. “It’s family-friendly and cozy and comfortable. The teachers and I really like it here, it’s just that there are challenges, like no parking around the school -- there are always issues with picking kids up -- there’s no air conditioning, there are narrow hallways.

“These are all things that the new school building will offer and correct, so to speak.”

Isaacson, in her 24th year at the school, said there’s a familylike feel there, with generations of graduates. One kindergarten teacher attended kindergarten herself at the school, then started teaching there. She took time off to be a stay-at-home mom, returned to teaching and then retired -- replaced by a new teacher she’d once taught in kindergarten.

“The population is a little more transient than when I first started, but parents show up for parent-teacher conferences and support the school,” Isaacson said. “People feel real ownership and pride in the school, and it has a special place in community members’ hearts.

“We’re the only K through 12 district on the lake and that’s meant challenges. We could have merged with a bigger school district, but this school is part of the community’s identity, their center.” 

The district’s referendum for a $19.9 million new elementary school addition to the middle/high school passed in 2014. Original plans called for the old building to be demolished.

Earlier this year, Lake Geneva business owner Fred Gahl purchased the building for $120,000. The deal is expected to close in September. 

Gahl said he’s considering multiuse plans for the 84,000-square-foot building.

“We’re exploring a number of nonprofit community, educational and fine arts opportunities, maybe an educational or cultural center, like the Burlington Café Center or the Whitewater fine arts center,” Gahl said. “The building has two gyms, two stages and a kitchen. There are baseball and soccer fields, so there’s lots of space. We’re looking at some interesting scenarios for it.”

Wayne Anderson, Williams Bay School District superintendent, said residents had been concerned that the building would be unused or remain empty.

A 100th anniversary celebration for the school building was held last month. School officials offered tours of the building.

“A lot of people had gone to the school but hadn’t been back in a while and didn’t realize a lot has changed,” Anderson said.

He hopes to hold an auction this summer of items in the old building that won’t be needed in the new one.

“We’d like to give people an opportunity to come and purchase an item -- maybe a particular desk or chair or some type of memorabilia they can put in their home,” he said.

Isaacson isn’t surprised by the community’s attachment to the old school.

“It’s a big building with a little-school atmosphere,” she said.

She noted multiple additions over the years -- from 1929 through the 1980s -- gave the school a “rambling” feel, but said its architecture was beautiful.

“The woodwork and carvings by artisans in the building is gorgeous, and there were great details, like transoms over the doors,” she said.

“The exterior design seems to be a favorite with everyone. The design is timeless, classic and elegant. I especially love the art deco details on the exterior,” wrote Deb Soplanda in an email.

Soplanda, a faculty member at Williams Bay High School, is an alumna of Williams Bay Elementary School.

“My memories of being at the school are that we were a large family, a feeling that continues today,” she said. “Our teachers cared about the individual students and there was, and is, a safe and warm environment to grow both emotionally and academically.”

Soplanda is the adviser for the high school’s history club, which compiled a timeline of the old elementary school.

“Once I began researching the roots of the schools in Williams Bay, I was surprised at how important education was to residents of Williams Bay,” she said. “From 1839 onward, education was a priority.”

The timeline noted the first Williams Bay school was held in the home of the daughter-in-law of village founder Capt. Israel Williams in 1839. For the next 60 years, one-room schoolhouses dotted the area.

In 1900, residents wanted a consolidated village school, and a two-story wooden building, complete with a bell tower, was built for first- through eighth-graders. The structure was located northeast of the current elementary school.

When the brick school building was constructed in 1916, it held not only elementary but high school students.

The Williams Bay Middle/High School was built in 1995 and houses students in grades seven through 12.

“As most graduates will attest, attending this small, outstanding school was a unique experience,” said Terri Hall, a 1980 graduate of Williams Bay High School and president of WBHS Alumni Association. “I always say that we don’t know just the students in our own class, we also know most of the others from the five years before and the five years after.”

Soplanda estimates the school graduated some 3,000 students in its 100 years. 

“We can still get 500 (or more) alumni from all over the world together for the all-school reunions every five years,” she said. “We love our school.”

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