From old school to new apartments: Iron River's Central School is rehabilitated

A beloved school which holds so many memories for the people of Iron River could have gone the way of the wrecking ball, or perhaps died a natural death in slow decline. However, thanks to the cooperative efforts of developers, investors and community leaders, it is being brought back from obsolescence to once again serve people in Iron River, this time as Apple Blossom Apartments.

The original Central School was built in 1904 to meet the need of a rising population in Iron River, thanks to intense mining and logging operations at the time. An annex was tacked on a few years later to provide even more needed space. Eventually, a high school was built, and Central School was used as a primary and secondary school.

How grand the Central School must have been! The structure is said to be a "fine example of Dutch Colonial Revival-style architecture," with its characteristic gambrel roofs, also used in residential design during this period.  The original building consisted of ten classrooms, a lab and recitation space, and a 500-seat assembly hall.

Alvah Littlefield Sawyer 's A History of the Northern Peninsula of Michigan and its People described the original structure:

"The Central School in Iron River is an imposing and modern structure of two stories and a basement.... It is lighted with electricity and heated with steam and hot air, the air being forced into the rooms by means of a large fan. It also includes among its improvements an electric vacuum cleaning plant in the basement, which is probably the only one in operation in an Upper Peninsula building."
It's no wonder it had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008. However, it continued to deteriorate, with the roof of the grand auditorium eventually falling in, filling a space that was once occupied by the voices and laughter of happy children.

The school needed an angel of sorts. It found one in Tim Hovey, a developer who has been involved with a number of projects below the bridge, but none here in "God's country." He said a former partner of his had frequented the U.P. on a number of occasions, coming up here to enjoy our great outdoors.

On one trip to adjacent Crystal Falls, the mayor there made a remark to the man that went something like this: "So you think Crystal Falls is too small for you to invest in?" The developer took up the challenge and invested in what would later be dubbed the Crystal View Apartments.

It was from this experience that Hovey, the principal of Gryphon Group, LLC in Lansing, got interested in nearby Iron River and the potential for the Central School. The new development, which should open by the end of the year and offer 22 living units, hasn't come quickly or cheaply.

Hovey says the Gryphon Group got interested in the development in 2006 but it was put on hold during the bumpy economic ride that started in 2008. With lenders returning to a position of confidence in the last year or so they have been able to go forth with the project, which got under way in the spring of this year.  Wolverine Building Group and architect Barry Polzin have been contracted for the construction phase of the project.

The funding for the project is made possible, in part by the efforts of the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, which allowed Lake Michigan Financial Corporation (perhaps another "angel" from below the bridge) to purchase tax credits to the tune of $5 million.

Before any work could get under way they had to take steps to comply with environmental rules and regulations, including lead abatement, which has been completed, according to city manager Perry Franzoi. During the construction phase of the project they have to be mindful of the National Register of Historic Places designation, which can create challenges for contractors.

For instance, they're not allowed to change the basic structure of the building, only improve upon it. The auditorium, that now offers a view to the heavens thanks to time and neglect, will be transformed into a courtyard, rather than living units, which wouldn't be allowed under the historic designation.

"There are challenges," says Hovey, "but we are able to navigate through them and bring the old school back to life."

Hovey says the project couldn't have gotten under way without the support of the folks in Iron River. One person, Ron Basso, a local attorney and member of the Iron River Downtown Development Authority, has been especially interested in seeing Iron River rebound after losing much of the population that made it necessary to build the large school in the first place. He's been instrumental in getting the Apple Blossom development moving from concept to construction.

"He's been a real champion of the project," says Hovey.

The renovation will allow for 22 units to be created, eight which will be reserved for publicly funded housing. MTH Management Company, also from Lansing, will manage the rental aspect of Apple Blossom Apartments. The school is located just a block off U.S. 2 in Iron River and within walking distance of grocery stores, like Jubilee, which is located on the back side of Central School. 

Ross Tresedder, who manages Jubilee stores in Iron River and Crystal Falls, looks forward to the increase in business it will create for the store, but is just as happy seeing the grand old school being transformed into something useful for the community and its residents.

"We're happy to see any kind of development in Iron River," says Tresedder. "It's nice it can help low-income and other people have a nice place to live."

Neil Moran is a freelance writer/copywriter and owner of Haylake Business Communications.
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