Built in 1898, the iconic and beloved Maeser School was the longest continuously running public school in Utah history when it was closed in 2002. The building was designed by Richard C. Watkins who was known as, “one of the most prolific architects in central Utah.” One of the best preserved examples of Watkins’ work, the Maeser School was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.
In 2000, the Provo City District School Board made the difficult decision to close the historic Maeser School. This decision had a serious negative impact on not only the families of the Maeser students, but the entire Maeser community, who were in a struggle to revitalize their declining neighborhood. Following a lengthy, and sometimes bitter, grass roots effort of the neighborhood residents to keep the building open as a school, it became evident that the school would close in June 2002. As it lay vacant, the school became a draw to vandals, jeopardizing the historic integrity of the building.
The community feared that the Maeser School would face wrecking ball heightened when the School District was unsuccessful in selling Maeser to a private sector entity. Private entities were unable to resolve the challenge of the high costs of restoration combined with the political challenge of the City’s plan for the neighborhood. Twice the building narrowly escaped the danger of demolition by Provo School District.
The Provo City Housing Authority saw beauty in the architecture of the school, and possibility in the vacant land surrounding the building, and felt that a redevelopment project would be a catalyst for other preservation and neighborhood revitalization projects. In 2003, the Provo City Housing Authority proposed to save the school by acquiring the property, restoring and adaptively reusing the school as affordable rental housing for low income seniors, and developing a 12 lot subdivision on the remaining portion of the block. The subdivision was purchased by Rural Housing Development Corporation for to the development of affordable single family homes for first-time home-buyers through their Mutual Self Help program.
Maeser School Apartments, 31 affordable apartments for seniors, opened its doors in mid-October 2006 and was fully occupied by December 1, 2006. The project is considered a great success by both affordable housing advocates and historical preservation proponents. The adaptive reuse of the Maeser School has received national recognition and awards (including Outstanding Recognition from the Utah Board of State History, Best of State for City Planning, a Heritage Award from the Utah Heritage Foundation, a Readers’ Choice Finalist from the Affordable Housing Finance Magazine, and Best Rehabilitation from the Association of Builders and Contractors) and has received widespread compliments and positive feedback from the community, including several community leaders who have publicly spoken in support of this project, including Robert Bennett, U.S. Senator, and Lewis K. Billings, Mayor, Provo City.
With the development of Maeser School Apartments, the Provo City Housing Authority has restored the building according to federal, state, and local historic standards. The exterior of the building was preserved and restored to near original design with the addition of three skylights and three dormer windows installed on the west and north roof to provide light for third floor apartments. The interior work preserved the wide central hallways and staircases, as well as restored the original twelve foot ceilings on the first and second floors. The Maeser building now houses 31 apartments for low-income senior citizens: twenty-five one-bedroom and eight studio apartments. These apartments have been designed for independent living, utilizing the historic features of the building while incorporating modern design. Each apartment has a unique floor-plan, with assorted historic qualities ranging from vaulted ceilings, tall windows, and original wood wainscoting. Common areas have been provided in the building including a laundry facility, and a community room.
Maeser School Media Timeline (Abridged)
1997-2000: What Will Become of Maeser School?, April 16, 1997; Board Weighs Fate of School Maeser Building Faces Replacement or Demolition, May 16, 2000; Land Deal is Key to Provo’s Old Maeser School, May 29, 2000; Provo Seals Fate of School, June 7, 2000;
2001: Maeser Elementary a Historic Building, Feb. 23, 2001; Maeser Study Finds School Functional, March 26, 2001; Document Suggests Two Uses for Maeser, March 28, 2001; Saving Maeser, May 27, 2001; District Hopes to Save School, July 13. 2001;
2002: Board to Debate Demise of School Building, Feb. 12, 2002; Historic School May Face Wrecker, March 24, 2002; Residents Seek to Save Old Building: School Board Votes to Tear Down Building, March 26, 2002; Maeser Elementary Is Irreplaceable, March 31, 2002; Maeser May Fall to the Wrecking Ball, May 20, 2002; Board Grants Maeser Proponents More Time, June 20, 2002; Foundation Hopes Fund-raiser Will Save Maeser Elementary, Aug. 5, 2002; Vandals Leaving Marks on Vacant School, Sept. 24, 2002; Vacant Maeser Building Awaits Death Sentence, Nov. 24, 2002; Maeser School May Be Saved, Dec. 3, 2002; Provo School to Stand for Another 6 Months, Dec. 4, 2002;
2003: Development Proposal for Maeser Building Hits Snag, April 25, 2003; Housing Authority May Buy Maeser School, June 12, 2003; New Hope for Provo Landmark, July 9, 2003; Housing Authority Moves Closer to Renovating Maeser School, Dec. 24, 2003;
2004: Lack of Funds Stalling Maeser Revamp Efforts, Feb. 11, 2004, School to become Apartments, June 10, 2004; Vacant School to Become Housing, July 5, 2004; Restoration Key to Preserving Flavor of the Neighborhood, July 12, 2004; The Future of Maeser Elementary School Looks Bright, Aug. 20, 2004; Maeser School Emerges as Winner in 4-Year Battle, August 20, 2004;
2005: Maeser Chalkboard Preserved, Jan. 1, 2005; Some Provo Residents Concerned about the Fate of Historic Maeser School, Jan. 11. 2005; Hearing on Maeser School to Solve Issues, Jan. 18, 2005; Fate of the Maeser School Tabled, Jan. 19, 2005; Council Delays Elementary School Fate, Jan. 20, 2005; School’s Future in Limbo, Jan. 24, 2005; Provo Changes Zone to Save Old School, Feb. 2, 2005; School May Become Housing, Feb. 3, 2005 Maeser School Demolition Begins Debate Lingers, April 7, 2005; Provo Zoning Rules Receive HUD’s Praise, July 29, 2005; Maeser Chalkboards Preserved, Nov. 28, 2005;
2006: Deed May Halt Housing Development, May 9, 2006; Old Deed Stalls Plans for Maeser Elementary, May 11, 2006; Yes in Deed: A Deed More Than 100 Years Old Causes Building Controversy, May 21. 2006; HGTV in Provo to Film Work on Maeser School, May 24, 2006; HGTV to Air Maeser Transformation, May 25, 2006; TV to Spotlight Maeser Project, May 26, 2006; Maeser Dispute Sparks Lawsuit, Aug. 28, 2006; Court to Decide if Maeser Document is Still Valid, Aug. 28, 2006; HGTV/Restore America Maeser School Video; Historic Elementary School Becomes Senior Housing, Oct., 19, 2006