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Long-ago past comes to light in North Hall café

BY ASHLEY OERMAN | DECEMBER 09, 2009 7:30 AM

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A young artist named George will lead Jefri Palermo on a historic adventure 80 years in the making.

The development coordinator for the UI School of Social Work will use the boy’s yellowing pencil sketch of a train, signed with the initials “G.E.M.” in the corner, to unlock stories of North Hall encapsulated within and behind the furniture of Wild Bill’s Coffee Shop. The café was George’s kindergarten classroom in the 1920s.

Workers recently uncovered the room’s original flooring and discovered red painted circles numbered from 1 to 15 — remnants from the days when the building served as a K-12 school. The large dots probably made up a “reading circle” which students sat in while listening to stories, Palermo said.

Workers also found children’s drawings, emergency-procedures signs, and other education aids from the early 1920s that had slipped off of a bulletin board and behind the school children’s cubbyholes.

Even before the remodeling project started in October, Palermo said, she had heard former students talk about their reading circles, and seeing it made the past come to life.

“We’re part of a long chain of events in that building,” she said.

North Hall — one of the UI’s oldest buildings, built in 1915 — is now home to the School of Social Work.

During the 60 years that elementary, junior-high, and high-school students used the building, the UI College of Education used the facility to train teachers and administrators. The university closed the school in 1972 because of reduced funding.

Officials hope the recent discoveries can give them more insight into the building’s background.

Students and staff in the School of Social Work are excited about the artifacts because they appreciate the history of their school and want to preserve it, she said.

After the pieces of the past were uncovered, renovators and staff have decided to take special measures to save and display their findings.

Marvin Dejear, who is working on the coffee-shop project, said workers plan to show off the reading circle by covering it with a clear finish.

In addition to preserving the floor, Palermo said, she plans to frame the kindergarten class’s artwork and show it off during Wild Bill’s reopening next semester. Officials also plan to use two other antiques — a cabinet and a large mirror in the coffee shop.

Though social-work student Lindsey Remegi said she knew the building used to be a primary and secondary school, she had never heard very much about it. The junior is looking forward to the completion of the coffee-shop renovation so she can check out the historical discoveries between classes, she said.

“You see on the building that it says elementary and high school, but I don’t know why,” she said.

The shop’s renovation will make it more handicap-accessible; it is funded by donations and profits from Wild Bill’s. The coffee shop is scheduled to reopen Jan. 21.


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