Lost World

Old Mesa schoolhouse disappears to make room for dinosaurs

More than 20 years ago, in an unparalleled community effort, Mesa residents built the Little Adobe Schoolhouse, an authentic reproduction of Mesa's original one-room school.

It was a labor of love that served as a grassroots bicentennial project. Some 28,000 schoolchildren donated pennies and other change to fund the project. Descendants of pioneer families, including relatives of Mesa's first schoolteacher, donated items to make the little museum authentic. The facility was built by vocational technology students from Mesa's high schools. Future Farmers of America club members worked on the exterior grounds. Home economics students made the period costumes that mannequins wore inside the schoolroom.

And when the building was dedicated in 1976, then-first lady Betty Ford participated in the event along with 10,000 citizens of Mesa.

Tray Mead, administrator of Mesa Southwest Museum, shows off a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the museum lobby.
Paolo Vescia
Tray Mead, administrator of Mesa Southwest Museum, shows off a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the museum lobby.

"It was the biggest public gathering in Mesa's history up to that point," says Joanie Flatt, a Valley public relations executive who helped coordinate the project when she was the Mesa public schools community relations director.

Last year, the Little Adobe Schoolhouse was unceremoniously demolished. It's being replaced by a much-touted dinosaur exhibit. News of the school's impending demise somehow escaped many of the people who had helped build it.

Kathye Brown noticed it was gone one day as she drove by the site. She called her husband to tell him the news. Wayne Brown, Mesa's mayor, was shocked. So was Flatt when Wayne Brown called her.

And so were other members of the city council and area residents who had donated time, money and memorabilia to the little museum, according to Flatt.

Sure, they remembered approving the $4.5 million in bond money to finance half of the Southwest Museum's expansion. And they had seen the plans for turning the facility into one of the largest dinosaur museums west of the Mississippi River. But somehow they missed the part about the city having to destroy the Little Adobe Schoolhouse in the process.

Apparently, so have local media, who lately have been trumpeting the new facility -- really an expansion of the existing Mesa Southwest Museum. Set to open May 23, the museum will include increased natural history and historical areas, a dedicated Arizona Highways magazine gallery, an aquarium featuring live descendants of prehistoric fish that used to live in the area 60 million years ago, and lots of animatronic dinosaurs.

The centerpiece will be the three-story Dinosaur Mountain, which will take visitors through 200 million years of history, featuring period creatures along the way, to present day. Included will be a 50-foot waterfall and a simulated flash flood complete with lightning and thunder.

While updates about the expansion have been breathlessly reported in local newspapers ("completely DINO-mite," proclaimed one Tribune article), plans for a new schoolhouse are proceeding quietly and slowly.

Now, bruised feelings aside, supporters are working to build a new schoolhouse replica near the site of the city's first settlement.

"We want to know where to put it so they can't tear it down," says Howard Godfrey, a retired city administrator who, through his work with the Mesa Historical Society, is leading the effort to build another schoolhouse.

Plans for the building are still in the early stages, he says. The city has budgeted $65,000 for the project, local architect Ron Peters has agreed to donate plans for the school, and a July completion date has been set. Land owned by the historical society on Horne Road is being surveyed to determine where the first school was located and where the new replica should be built.

Although the money was allocated for the current fiscal year, which began six months ago, serious work on the project is just now beginning. Boxes of materials saved before the demolition have not been examined. And a contractor has yet to be hired.

At the old Little Adobe Schoolhouse, visitors to the building could walk inside and see an authentic reproduction of the 1913 schoolhouse, complete with a schoolteacher and children at their desks. An audio tape told about the first school and its history. And although it was only a replica, it was the city's first period museum, and it became a part of city history to those who had been involved in the project.

An account of the development of Mesa's museums on the city's Web site says the bicentennial dedication prompted "a surge of public interest in Mesa's heritage." This then led to the development and 1977 opening of what was later named the Mesa Southwest Museum, which shared the site at Macdonald and First streets with the Little Adobe Schoolhouse.

It was the expansion of that facility -- which has evolved into more of a natural history museum with an emphasis on dinosaurs -- that led to the demolition of the schoolhouse. Flatt blames a "Dinosaurs 'R' Us" mentality for the demise of the Little Adobe Schoolhouse. And she is still bristling over the way in which the adobe structure came crumbling down.

The schoolhouse had structural problems that would have made it unsafe to occupy in a matter of years, officials have said. But while many were aware of the plans to double the size of Mesa Southwest Museum, Flatt says people weren't specifically informed it would involve tearing down the schoolhouse.

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