Future of McCormick School Museum in doubt

By Joe Stumpe | May 20, 2021

Correction: A headline on an earlier version of this article said the McCormick School Museum is closed. Tours are still available by appointment on Wednesday and Sunday. To schedule one, call (316) 841-6198.

The future of Wichita’s oldest school building, which houses McCormick School Museum, appears shaky. According to a memo that museum curator Paul Oberg titled “McCormick School Museum Crisis-Status Report #1,” the museum grounds were fenced-off and gated under lock and key on April 21, due to liability concerns created by limestone fragments falling from the building. There are no plans at this time to repair the building, which is owned by the Wichita School District, Oberg reported.

“It appears that the WPS administration is set to abandon the McCormick School building,” Oberg wrote. “Cost factors have snowballed over the years as obsolescence and unabated deterioration have taken their toll. The massive investment of funds required to stabilize the structural condition of the building (approximately $1.8 million dollars) can no longer be justified using public tax dollars.”

Susan Arensman, a spokesperson for the school district, confirmed that it has no plans to repair McCormick. 

“We still want to continue our collaboration with McCormick, but to make repairs we’d have to invest two million dollars and that is the type of investment we can’t justify for a building that doesn’t accommodate students.”

 The governing board of the McCormick School Museum was given until May 26 to consider two options.

One is to find or establish its own financially well-endowed not-for-profit organization with a viable plan to purchase (most likely for a pittance), restore and continue to develop the property as an independent museum.

The second is to accept what Oberg termed a “generous” offer to transfer the museum archives and collections to new quarters at the district administration building, the former Southeast High School at Edgemoor and Lincoln, where “McCormick School Museum at AMAC” would be established under the purview of the BOE.

The school building, located on the corner of McCormick and Martinson streets, is “steeped with tradition and a great sense of history,” the district’s website states. It began as a four-room, two-story structure designed by the well-known architects Willis T. Proudfoot and George W. Bird. That part was completed in 1890 and named for a family of early settlers; several additions were made later. 

The school was the only one in the city with a bell tower and large bell, which was rung at the start and close of every school day.

The nomination application for the national historic register described the school’s east or front entrance as its most notable architecture feature. It is framed by twin towers, similar to a castle, with a stone arch over the entrance.

The district closed the school in 1992 but reopened it as a museum and science center the same year, with Oberg in charge. When that programming was cut from the district’s budget, the Wichita Retired Teachers Association took it on as a project.

The museum formerly offered tours by appointment on Wednesday mornings and Sunday afternoons. Its exhibits include an 1890s classroom, a replica of East High’s 1923 science laboratory, historic photographs and district archives.

Oberg said in his memo that he would like to see the museum continue as it is but doubts whether that is possible. He and other museum supporters have been meeting in recent weeks to consider options.

“There are some who prefer Option 1 and would seek the necessary support and funding to preserve the McCormick building as a quintessential and irreplaceable artifact of Wichita Public School history,” Oberg wrote. “I do not disagree with them as to the desirability of this goal.  However, I do not wish to spend the next few years of my life struggling with the full-time effort required to realize this questionably achievable outcome.  Moreover, severing the museum from the source and purpose for its existence — to preserve and interpret the history of the Wichita Public Schools — seems detrimental for all concerned.   

“Under the present circumstances—weighing all consequences and the likelihood of survival, and future use of the primary resource material housed by the McCormick School Museum — I … recommend that we prepare for the transfer of material from the McCormick School building to the (administration building) over the summer months with the help, resources and assistance offered by the Board of Education.