One of Fond du Lac’s most familiar landmarks since the twin spires of the former historic St. Louis Catholic Church fell to fire in 2007 felt the bite of a wrecking ball.
“Old Main,” the former St. Mary’s Springs Academy high school built in 1928, its eight-story bell tower perched on the side of the Niagara Escarpment overlooking the city, was demolished about two weeks to make way for an elementary and middle school capable of educating up to 600 pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade students.

The new building, which will bring all of St. Mary’s Springs schools and its nearly 1,000 students from kindergarten through grade 12 to the same campus site, is the highlight of a $21.3 million school system construction, renovation and improvement project announced Aug. 7 by academy officials.

In addition to new elementary and middle school buildings, the project includes renovating the current high school, built in 1970, building shared art, music, science classrooms, new gym and fitness facilities and updating Springs’ sports fields and administrative offices.

“This project will allow us to share classroom resources among teachers and students,” said St. Mary’s Springs president Kevin J. Shaw.

Springs Academy elementary and middle school students currently attend St. Joseph and St. Mary schools in Fond du Lac. Both schools are owned by Holy Family Catholic Community Parish.

Shaw said once the new school is completed St. Joseph and St. Mary schools will close.

Second Century Campaign kicks off

As part of the Aug. 7 announcement, Springs officials kicked off the “Second Century Campaign” to raise funds to complement the $15.4 million already pledged for the project by 150 donors.

Groundbreaking is scheduled to take place once all the funds have been raised, Shaw said.

The project will rank Springs among one of the few Catholic school systems in the country to have all of its school facilities on one campus, Shaw said.

“We are one of the first K-12 Catholic school systems in the nation to take hold of this concept to bring the system together on one campus,” Shaw said.

A survey of parents found strong support for moving to one campus.

“We feel a K-12 system on one campus will assist us in growing our student population,” Shaw said. “We are hoping for good student numbers from the state’s new Parental Choice Program. We want to be prepared to accommodate a growing student population and parental choice will be a long-term asset snowball, maybe not overnight, but gradually over the next 10 years.”

St. Mary’s Springs Academy formed as a school system in 2009 in a unification process with the Fond du Lac Area Catholic Education System (FACES).

The decision to tear down Old Main and build an elementary and middle school came as the culmination of two years’ discussion and planning for Springs’ future and how to cope with its aging and structurally deficient former high school.

School located on picturesque site

“We feel fortunate to have the land and space adjacent to the current high school for this project. It’s certainly one of the most picturesque sites for an education facility I’ve seen,” Shaw said.

The forerunner of the academy began in 1862 as a one-room school at St. Mary Parish in Fond du Lac. In 1908, Springs became a girls high school staffed by sisters from the Congregation of St. Agnes.

By 1928, Springs outgrew its facility.

Old Main rose out of the woods of the Niagara Escarpment, the ancient geologic limestone formation that forms a ledge overlooking Fond du Lac from the east — the same ledge over which Niagara Falls plummets near its eastern end in New York State.

Old Main’s bell tower, with its red brick, has long been a familiar site to travelers on State 23 and U.S. 151.

Tower was Fond du Lac landmark

“You see that tower from everywhere in Fond du Lac. It’s clearly a landmark,” Shaw said. “Main Hall was built to be the quintessential high school in 1928 with an idyllic gymnasium and Michelangelo-inspired chapel. It’s an incredible structure.”

The landmark bell tower was not in the original plans for the 1928 high school, Shaw said.

“There was just a large water tower on top of the high school building,” Shaw said. “When the architects looked up, they thought the water tower didn’t look good, so they built the bell tower around it to hide the look of the water tower and ultimately give it a classic, 1930s high school look.”

In mid-August, Old Main, its water tank clearly visible within the bell tower, was surrounded by long ribbons of yellow “Caution” tape, its interior stripped of furnishings as crews worked to finish the $300,000 job of removing lead and asbestos-laden materials prior to beginning the demolition.

Despite sentimental pleas by alumni to save Old Main, the building with its tower will not be remodeled or repurposed, said Mark Hutter, chairman of the Second Century Campaign committee.

Hutter said changes in building codes, compliance with the American with Disabilities Act and requirements for meeting classroom needs of today’s students make renovating Old Main economically and structurally not feasible.

Architectural drawings for the new project do show construction of an ornamental tower similar to that of Old Main, but that could add up to $200,000 to the $21.3 million price tag, Shaw said.

Discussion is also underway to build a performing arts center between the existing high school and new elementary and middle school, but that would require funds outside the existing project scope, Shaw said.

“I often say St. Mary’s Springs Academy is ever ancient, but ever new. It’s always changing,” Shaw said. “My mother, Virginia Keys, graduated from Springs in 1941, the second year boys were finally admitted here.”

Shaw, who graduated from Springs in 1975, said he wants to “see the heritage, legacy and traditions of Springs continue for another 100 years.”

“With the new grade school we can do things better than we are currently doing with the existing facilities built in 1928 (St. Joseph) and 1949 (St. Mary),” Shaw said. “We want to keep our heritage in mind and honor the past while building on our future.”