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RF says 'a hard goodbye' to Academy building

The River Falls Academy building has been standing on Fremont Street in River Falls since 1927. Now, the community has a chance to come together and say farewell. Photo courtesy of UWRF University Archives and Area Research Center.1 / 3
Wendy Wall, a member of the River Falls High School Class of 1962, shared a few memories of her time attending school at the River Falls Academy building. She said it will be hard to say goodbye, but she'll always have her memories of the good times she had there. Gretta Stark / RiverTown Multimedia.2 / 3
The River Falls Academy building today still stands on Fremont Street -- but the original 1927 portion of the building and a 1970s addition are set to be taken down this year. A "Farewell Open House" is set for Tuesday, March 5. RiverTown Multimedia file photo3 / 3

Wendy Wall has spent time at the current River Falls High School building. She is impressed with the layout of the building, and finds it a very conducive learning environment.

But, she doesn't feel the same connection and sense of pride she feels when visiting what is now known as the River Falls Academy building on Fremont Street.

"It surprised me a little how attached we can become to a building," Wall said. "It's really the memories, not the building."

That building was where Wall attended school. Her class was the last to graduate from that building, when they completed high school in 1962.

Now, Wall is preparing to say goodbye to the building where she went to school.

The River Falls School District is making a "respectful exit" from the academy building. The cost of deconstructing the 1920s portion of the building, and the 1970s addition of the building, as well as a constructing a new addition to the 1990s portion of the building will all be covered with funds from the district's $48 million referendum passed in 2018.

The Academy building now houses the River Falls Public Montessori Academy. Next year, during construction, Montessori students will temporarily attend classes at the former RiverTown Multimedia building, at 2815 Prairie Drive.

As part of that "respectful exit," the district plans to save certain items from the 1920s portion of the school, and re-use them. For example, a trophy case will be moved to the current high school.

As another piece of that "respectful exit," the district is holding a Farewell Open House, set for 7 p.m., Tuesday, March 5, at the Academy building, 211 Fremont St.

According to Community Education Director Monique Squire, one of the event organizers, the open house will start with a social from 7-7:45 p.m. on the second floor of the Academy building. Light refreshments will be served. A tribute to the academy will begin at 7:45 p.m., and Superintendent Jamie Benson will speak then.

From 8-8:30 p.m., guided tours of the building will be offered, lead by current and former staff.

Throughout the reception people will be able to view old yearbooks, and visit two stations where they can create video recordings of their memories of the Academy building.

Squire said someone will be there to capture those memories on video.

Commemorative mugs will also be sold. Funds will go to the River Falls Sunshine Fund.

"It's just a time to come and say goodbye to the building and visit with friends and past memories," Squire said. "And just a nice little way to honor the building and say 'farewell.'"

Squire said the new addition will be built in the same spot.

"So, it's a time to progress," she said. "It won't be like they'll be just destroying it and leaving it in a heap."

Future memories will be made there.

A hard goodbye

Meanwhile, Wall and others who attended the Academy building are preparing to say goodbye.

Wall says for her, it will be a hard one, an emotional one, especially because of all the memories, including friendships.

"Those early teen friendships, you recognize how important they are the older you get, and each class reunion tells us that," Wall said.

One of the things Wall said she remembers most clearly are the smells.

"One was the cafeteria was just down the hall from the chemistry lab, so you would smell that food, and then you would smell some of the chemicals we might be working with, and those were distinctive smells," Wall said.

She also remembers the smell of the art room as she would walk by to get to the band or choir room.

The library floor was covered with vinyl or linoleum tiles, and at the time, the place for kids to hang out before school started. Some of the boys, Wall said, would try to pry up the pieces of tile.

"The library holds a lot of special meaning," Wall said, "because if you wanted to see anybody that's where you'd see them before school."

Wall said the original auditorium was the summer band rehearsal space. During some practices, there would be storm and tornado warnings.

"The wind would be whipping through those open windows, the shades would be rattling," Wall said. "And our band director would assure us that we were perfectly fine."

And the band played on.

Wall shared recollections of school dances, held in the cafeteria after basketball and football games. Prom, she said, was held in the gym.

"You had to walk down a flight of stairs to get into the gym proper," she said. "The ceiling would be decorated with crepe paper, and so would the walls.

"We had pop concerts at the same time, so that ceiling would stay there for a week or two and phy ed classes would just meet somewhere else," she said.

River Falls native Jeff Bjork is an RFHS grad who isactive in the RFHS Alumni Association.

"Being a historian of the community," Bjork said, "it's harder for me to see other people losing something that's so dear to them."

Bjork said his mother spent all of her school years at the Academy building.

While he loves the academy building, it's harder to see others "lose their dear old friend."

Bjork attended the Academy building for part of his elementary years and his junior high schooling.

"I was high-energy," he said. He never used the steps to the gymnasium. "I'd always use the bannister and slide down."

Bjork recalls getting to school early, after his morning paper route, when he would play hide-and-seek around the building with some other kids.

"We got to know all the nooks and crannies," he said.

In the basement they could see areas of the old foundation.

The original building on that site, Bjork said, burned down in 1926. The building was rebuilt in 1927. For most of that school year, students attended classes wherever there was space around town, mostly churches, Bjork said.

That building served as elementary, junior high, and high school until Greenwood Elementary was built in the late 50s, and took some of the elementary students. In 1963, the "new" high school, now Meyer Middle School, was built. So the class of 1962, Wall's class, was the last to go through Kindergarten through 12th grade in that same building.

Though the 1927 and 1970s sections of the building will be deconstructed, both Wall and Bjork said they're glad to know that some pieces of the building will be preserved.

"I'm so glad there was enough of a push to preserve those things because it can be very hard to preserve any sense of history," Wall said.

She's looking forward to seeing those items used throughout the district.

Bjork said the trophy case will go in the commons area of the current high school, and he and the Alumni Association hope to put up displays sharing information on former Wildcats.

Wall likened seeing the demise of the academy building to saying goodbye to a beloved home.

"There can be a sadness to moving out of the house, but we quickly realize that all of those memories do go with us," she said. "They are merely containers of the memories, and there's a certain amount of pleasure that we take in knowing that those memories do go with us."

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

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