Turning Over a New Leaf

Historic preservation consultant Kelli Lydon serves on the Greenleaf Center’s board.

Writer: Megan Bannister

For years, neighbors in northeast Des Moines would pass by the former Whittier Elementary School and dream of its potential. Despite vandalism, fire damage and years of neglect, they could see the possibilities stack up like the building’s old bricks.

Some folks remember going there as students or as members of the Boys and Girls Club, where they participated in tumbling classes or other after-school programs. For Kelli Lydon, a historic preservation consultant who lives nearby, the empty building was a blank canvas. It was just waiting for the right project.

The biggest section of the old Whittier School was built in 1904.

Soon, the Whittier Building will have a new life as the nonprofit Greenleaf Center, a place for people to gather, grow and share food, and build community. “It’s for the neighborhood by other neighbors,” said Lydon, the nonprofit’s board president. “That’s been at the heart of what’s driving us.”

All of the Greenleaf Center’s board members live within a mile of the building at 1350 E. Washington Ave., at the nexus of three neighborhoods — Union Park, Capitol Park and Martin Luther King Jr. Park. The building actually comprises several structures, the earliest of which is a wooden schoolhouse that dates to 1875. In 1904, a two-story brick expansion added four more classrooms, and in the 1950s, the footprint grew again.

After the last class of students cleaned out their desks in the 1970s, the Whittier Building housed various groups and activities. In addition to the Boys and Girls Club, it served as an artist co-op and the Area 515 makerspace, but it’s been vacant for the past few years, gutted by a number of owners with projects that never came to fruition.

Still, the property retains its original character, as well as extra layers of history that various tenants left behind. Swirling cursive handwriting lingers on a recently uncovered chalkboard, remnants of artwork still adorn the walls, and a colorful mural from the Boys and Girls Club tops the second-floor stairwell.

With help from Steve Wilke- Shapiro of Sequel Architecture, the Greenleaf Center board devised a plan to stabilize the structure and restore even more of its turn-of-the-20th-century charm. They’ve spent the past year making plans, completing inspections and working with the city on rezoning. Lydon says they’ll soon have construction permits, which will enable work crews to start the restoration this spring.

The building’s location is at the hub of four U.S. Census districts the U.S. Department of Agriculture has identified as food deserts, Lydon said, so the nonprofit board wants to use the site to help neighbors access fresh and local food. Plans are in the works for a coffee shop on the main floor, along with a community fridge. Outside, a community garden will likely expand in the former playground.

One of the old classrooms will become a flexible community room, where neighbors can host classes, pop-ups, private events and other activities for an inexpensive rental fee. The basement may be converted into a shared-use kitchen, inspired by similar spaces like the one at the Mickle Center in Sherman Hill. The building also will house a number of offices and tenants, including, conveniently, a carpenter who specializes in window restoration.

The neighborhood’s response to the Greenleaf Center was almost immediate, Lydon said. “I’ve already got people knocking on the door asking when they can use the community room,” she said. One neighbor wants to host salsa classes there. Someone else pitched an idea for art installation.

Similarly, she said, when the board has called for volunteers — for cleaning, yard work or other chores — dozens of neighbors have shown up, eager to help the Greenleaf Center give the old school a new life.

Iowa Stops Hunger is an ongoing Business Publications Corp. initiative to raise awareness about food insecurity in Iowa and inspire action to combat it.

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