Aaron Turner’s fascination with historic school buildings began before he can remember. As a 1-year-old, he lived in Fostoria, Ohio, across the street from Emerson Junior High School, which was built in 1915 and had been abandoned since the ’70s.
His babysitter also lived near a school, and Turner would watch everyday as the elementary kids put up the flag in front of the school at the start of the day and then took it down at the end. Family legend has it that “flag” was one of the first words Turner spoke.
So it’s no surprise that Turner decided to study education when he grew up, earning his master’s at Bowling Green State University. When it came time to choose a capstone project for his degree program, he recalled returning to Fostoria in 2004 to photograph the Emerson school building before it was demolished.
“It started to come more to my attention that these buildings were being lost and there was no record of them anywhere,” he says.
With no prior photography or website-design experience, Turner decided to create a digital record of Ohio historic schools and publish it at oldohioschools.com for his capstone project. (For more local education stories, catch this week’s episode of Columbus Neighborhoods at 8:30 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 26 on WOSU TV.)
While colleges, universities and private schools have alumni societies and other entities that maintain and preserve their facilities and historic records, Turner says, public schools were being consolidated or replaced with more modern buildings.
“It’s the (public) elementary schools that really don’t have any voice,” he says. “There’s really no [entity] that’s in charge of making sure the history of that school is maintained.”
So he decided to focus on public schools (excluding one-room schoolhouses) that were either gone or “endangered,” meaning they’d been abandoned or demolition was being considered. He’d tell the schools’ stories through photos.
“I wanted to publish it and have it be available instead of putting this in a binder and turning it in and putting it on my bookshelf,” says Turner, who now serves as the yearbook librarian for the Ohio Genealogical Society.
Between 2008 and 2011, while he was teaching second grade at Johnsville Elementary School in Johnsville, Ohio, Turner spent his weekends and summers traveling around the state, photographing historic school buildings in all 611 districts. Using his photos and historic documentation, such as old yearbooks and public school reports, he created the website, categorized by county.
“I do have to compliment in some way Columbus City Schools because out of all the municipal school districts in the state, Columbus City Schools is the one out of all of those that has made a very conscious effort to save or repurpose those buildings for another use,” Turner says.
He sites John Burroughs, Ohio Avenue, Avondale and Southwood elementary schools as examples of Columbus schools that have been fully restored to maintain their original architectural styles. Other school buildings are sometimes repurposed, like the McConnell Arts Center, which is housed at the former Worthington High School, built in 1915.
“In other places, it’s much more out with the old, in with the new, where a school is closed on Friday and by Monday, they’re ready to tear it down,” Turner says.
But Turner also says Columbus has some school buildings that he considers endangered.
Last summer, a citizens advisory group recommended that West Broad Elementary School, which was built in 1910, be rebuilt or remodeled for an estimated $17.3 million.
Though he completed the capstone project for his degree a few years ago, Turner says his work isn’t done. As the statuses of historic schools buildings change, he continues to update his website, serving as an advocate for preserving their facilities and stories.
Says Turner, “[The project is] never really completed because something’s always changing.”
Education in Columbus Preview
On the next episode of Columbus Neighborhoods, we take a look at education in Columbus, past and present. Local historian Jeff Darbee takes us on a tour of historic schools, and we visit a community event to learn about preventing infant mortality. Plus, learn about a mentoring program for African-American youth, the history of Ohio Dominican University and Ohio History Connection’s Ohio Village.