- Associated Press - Sunday, February 7, 2016

JOLIET, Ill. (AP) - One of the most vivid memories Gary Ward has from his time at the old Lockport Central School is of Nov. 22, 1963, as news spread of President John F. Kennedy’s death.

“I was in fifth grade and I was walking up the stairs to go back to class after lunch when one of the kids said he heard it on the radio,” Ward said. “Right after class, the principal, over the loudspeaker, gave the message.”

The school building is now known as Central Square, and it has since been converted into a municipal building. For 34 years it has housed services for three governmental entities: the city of Lockport, Lockport Township and Lockport Township Park District.

The building was reconstructed after a fire more than 100 years ago, and was saved by the efforts of local residents from sale and demolition.

So even though it will end an era for the building, city officials are sure it will continue to survive even with Lockport Township moving out, and the park district discussing the possibility of departing too.

Ward, president of the Lockport Area Genealogical and Historical Society, feels nostalgic whenever he heads to Central Square.

“It’s a neat old building,” he said, reminiscing about how rows of wooden desks with inkwells once were bolted to the floor of most of the second-floor classrooms and reminding him how much life has changed since then.

The playground where Ward played kickball with his friends used to be all gravel. Large slides and swing sets - probably not safe by today’s standards - filled the area.

“I’ve still got scars on my legs from falling there,” he said.

On April 7, 1857, voters in Lockport approved, 113-6, a referendum adding a 3 percent tax on property to build Central School, according to a historical account by late local historian and Herald-News reporter Elmer Ott gathered through old, leather-bound handwritten accounts found in the cellar of the school.

In a second vote, 150 people voted to build the school on the public square grounds acquired by Lockport through a canal commissioner’s land grant.

The $2,350 stone building - much smaller than the structure’s current incarnation - had a four-sided clock tower and housed elementary and high school classes.

As the use of the school grew, school officials took out $5,000 in fire insurance coverage on the building and asked the municipal government to extend water mains for fire protection and install fire hydrants near the school, a request Lockport officials denied.

On Aug. 10, 1895, a building at 10th and State streets caught fire and leveled a block of the town. Flying embers fell into the school’s clock tower and the interior was burned out.

The building received a settlement of $14,211.92 from insurance companies. A month later, residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of borrowing $8,000 to help reconstruct the school, a job finished in 1896.

In 1909, high school classes were moved to the new Lockport Township High School at 1222 S. Jefferson St.

When Milne Grove and Kelvin Grove elementary schools were built in the 1950s, Central Square was abandoned.

“Along comes the 1970s and the school district decides that this building is antiquated and they should sell the property,” Ron Caneva said. “But a group of citizens said, ‘It’s not school property. It’s (in the public trust.) You can’t sell it.’?”

While the school district wasn’t opposed to saving the building, Caneva, who was an attorney for the city of Lockport after the residents fought back, said a seven-year court battle ensued between the residents and Chicago Title and Trust Co.

The title company had given the school district $150,000 in title insurance sometime before the proposed sale of the building, and it was fighting the residents’ claim that the land belonged in some part to the public.

Community members, including “Mr. Lockport” Bruce Cheadle, Anton and Julius Matesi, Joseph Cornolo, William Goodale, George Michas and Plainfield attorney Samuel Saxon, formed a group called Citizens to Save Public Square, according to a memorial booklet by the Lockport Civic and Commerce Association.

After appeals by both sides, a state appellate court ruled that the land couldn’t be sold and the title company had to give the school district the $150,000 claim.

The city, township and park district chipped in for a $1 million renovation that turned the building into offices for the three governments in 1981.

“That was kind of the start of preserving buildings in Lockport,” Caneva said. “It was the first building that was saved. Others throughout town were rehabilitated after that.”

The city, township and park district have coexisted in Central Square for decades. The park district took most of the first floor space, including the gym. City offices reside on the second floor, and township officials work on the third floor.

The building is owned by the city, but the Central Square Committee runs it and collects revenue for operations costs from the three governments.

But with the township leaving and moving into the former Parkview Christian Church at 1263 Farrell Road, the committee may be dissolved, City Administrator Ben Benson said.

With the township gone, the city could move in its community development office, building department and IT technicians and servers, Benson said, which are now in a separate facility. There could also be space for the municipal television studio and Lockport Chamber of Commerce.

Park District Executive Director Sue Micklevitz said the district has had some discussions on moving out, but nothing has been decided.

Micklevitz said the district’s administration building at 1911 S. Lawrence Ave. was built in the 1970s and has “a lot of leaks.” She also mentioned several infrastructure issues that could be alleviated by bringing all park district operations, including at Central Square, into a new or expanded building.

In addition to the gym, the district operates two preschool rooms at Central Square. But Micklevitz said events such as the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary have presented some security concerns that could be better addressed at a more secure facility.

“We’re at a point where it’s getting close to making a decision,” Micklevitz said. “But we don’t want to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ until we know it’s the appropriate thing to do.”

Benson said that the city, which would retain ownership of the building, could rent out the space to other organizations if the district also decides to move.

“We’ll probably do some improvements to the building, but nothing drastic,” Benson said.

To Ward, preserving Central Square means preserving an enduring quality of a building known as a centerpiece of Lockport.

Ward often looks at old photos of Central Square that people share on the Facebook page, Kelvin Grove Memories, and remember how him and four siblings experienced grade school.

“I remember we used to have a tree during Christmas time on each floor and sing Christmas carols,” Ward said. “I remember every year they had a puppet marionette show. … It’s some important history.”

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Source: The (Joliet) Herald-News, http://bit.ly/1QnroDt

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Information from: The Herald-News, http://www.theherald-news.com/

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