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Watch now: Is Johns Hill school considered historic? $21,000 spent to find out
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DECATUR SCHOOLS
HILL HISTORY

Watch now: Is Johns Hill school considered historic? $21,000 spent to find out

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DECATUR — Demolishing Johns Hill Magnet School isn't going to be as easy as just tearing it down.

The company hired by the Decatur school district, The Martin Engineer Co., is required to submit applications to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency for various permits and those applications initiated a review of the project under the Illinois State Agency Historic Resources Preservation Act. Upon review, the State Historic Preservation Officer determined Johns Hill School and the Boiler House are eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

As a result, the demolition can't happen until certain stipulations are met.

“In order for us to tear it down, the (Illinois State Historic Preservation Society) is wanting us to document the building, collect artifacts, and videotape the building,” said Todd Covault, chief operational officer for Decatur Public Schools.

The district has hired ALTUSWORKS at a cost of $21,000 to fulfill this requirement. The company will take interior and exterior photos and detail photos for a digital record. The photos have to be taken by a professional photographer using specific equipment, and the records must include sketches, a written historical narrative, architectural description, original and historic drawings, maps, and field notes all completed following precise guidelines, to be submitted to the Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the Historic Preservation Society, before demolition can begin.

Covault did not know why Johns Hill would be considered historic, and neither did the Decatur Public Library's local history room library assistant or Frank Butterfield of Landmarks IL.

“There is a state preservation law and a federal one, too, that if a site is big enough to require an Illinois Environment Protection Agency storm runoff state license or funding, it triggers that preservation law,” Butterfield said. “You have to look at if there will be an adverse impact on a building, demolition for example, if there are feasible alternatives to avoid, reverse or mitigate it.”

He has no direct knowledge of the situation, he said, but could find no record of the site having historic significance.

Messages left for officials at the Illinois State Historic Preservation Society were not answered by deadline.

SECONDARY

Johns Hill Magnet School is shown last week. Construction of a new building is underway. 

Construction has begun on a new Johns Hill Magnet School, with the goal to open for the 2021-22 school year.

The existing school was built in the 1920s on the site of the former home of Dr. C.H. and Jane Martin Johns, prominent citizens who had connections to the Oglesby and Abraham Lincoln families. It was a junior high school at first and is Decatur's oldest magnet school, serving grades kindergarten through eighth. The site was known as Johns Hill while the couple lived there and the name was retained for the school.

What's odd in this situation, Covault said, is that Durfee School, both the original site at Jasper and Grand and the site at 1000 W. Grand Ave., are about the same age. The original Durfee was built in 1915 and the West Grand Avenue building in the 1920s.

“I've never seen this before with any of our buildings, so why this one?” Covault said. “The original Johns was a surgeon in the Civil War so maybe (the reason is) the legacy of the Johns family.”

The decision to construct a new building on the property, though not on the same site, cheered the Johns Hill school family who considers “The Hill” a second home.

When the Decatur district first began to develop its BOLD Facilities Plan, there was talk of decommissioning the existing Johns Hill and moving the program elsewhere, and staff and families objected. The final BOLD plan calls for the new building, which is underway, while students will continue to inhabit the existing building until fall 2021.

Kathy Balamos Ganley has been connected to Johns Hill since her children began attending school there in 2002, and has taught there since 2014. 

INSIDE

Early construction continues on the new Johns Hill Magnet School building in Decatur.

"Generations of families have grown here through the arts, academics and athletics, within a multi-cultural community," she said. "Johns Hill has been an English second language/English Language Learners school since the 1980’s.  With students currently representing 20 countries of origin, and students from various socio-economic backgrounds, our school opens the doors to a micro-international world."

“There is a tremendous culture of caring and acceptance, of family,” said Liz Bartimus, who taught there from 2011 until her retirement in 2019 and continues to be involved. “We applaud and celebrate  the diversity of cultures in the building which makes it unique on its own. More than that, everyone is included and we push students to be their best and try new things, to explore and spread their wings.”

It's not unusual, she said, for students to return for visits years after moving on to high school and college, and the K-8 program allows for relationships to be built over years and continue long after students are grown. Those relationships, Bartimus said, give kids confidence and a soft place to land if they need one.

“Every school has their own culture and strives to do their best with students,” she said. “I think the mantra we share with our students and staff says it all: Once an Eagle, always an Eagle. We eat, live and breathe it on The Hill.”


21 photos of Decatur high school activities through the years

Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter

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