Scott Coffey, the former dean of students at Hebron Elementary School, stands in the building’s empty gymnasium in early December. He soaks it in, admiring the discarded desks and chairs, the large windows above the faded bleachers. Everything is cast in a gray glow.
The building, which was built more than 100 years ago in 1914, stood the test of time educating Hebron’s youth. At one time, all grade levels were taught there, including high school. Generation after generation of Hebron’s families attended school there.
But for the first time in 108 years, the building sits empty. There are no students laughing in the halls, no athletes running up and down the floors of the gym, no school buses idling in the parking lot.
The local school board elected to relocate the students to Jackson Intermediate School — an updated, modern building — before the 2023-2024 school year.
“It feels – it just feels so empty,” said Coffey, taking a seat on the bleachers. “This place used to be filled with kids every day. You could feel the energy. When they all came in, you forgot that the building needed repair and attention. They filled it with life.”
The “Frankensteined” building, though, couldn’t last.
The hallways warp through the building. They slope, curve and turn — revealing the oldest parts of the building, as well as more modern additions from the 1950s, ’70s and ’80s.
Though the building is empty, its story isn’t over. The Hebron Elementary building will be put up for auction by Lakewood Local Schools on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. The starting bid for the property, located at 709 Deacon St. in Hebron, sits at $650,000.
A little shy of a year ago, in mid-December 2022, Coffey stood in the same gymnasium to address his school, filled with students in kindergarten through second grade.
“They’re kids, y’know?” he chuckled. “But it wasn’t lost on them. Everything we were doing was going to be the last. The last first day, the last field day, the last assembly…”
He trailed off into silence. His eyes continued to scan the wooden floor, stage, and random equipment.
“You know something that really jumped out at me?” Coffey asked. “All of these dots,” his finger now pointing to the ground where multicolored dots spot the floor. Even between us on the bleachers, there are four tightly packed dots. “These dots are social distancing tools from the pandemic. It’s funny, there is a mix of this ancient architecture and then COVID scars.”
Coffey speaks of the rich history of the building with passion and sentimentality, detailing athletic events that took place in the gym and the since-torn-down stadium, how the last class of seniors graduated in 1959 before the high school relocated elsewhere in Lakewood, about the agricultural programs, the art classes, and the people who made the school “tick.”
However, none of that was enough to justify the school being in use.
Maintaining the building was too much work, Coffey explained. With three floors and no elevator, it wasn’t compliant for people with disabilities.
“This here is a lift put in to make the building more accessible,” Coffey said, pointing to a metal contraption attached to the stairs. “Most of the building only has stairs.”
The building couldn’t meet today’s standards for school safety, with no place to vet visitors before they entered the building and almost no airflow in classrooms.
Due to the limited airflow, Coffey said the third-floor classrooms could reach 100 degrees on a hot day. The building just wasn’t a viable option for housing a school anymore. Coffey was aware that it was time for the building to be put to a different use, but no one knows what that may be.
Doug Walker, Lakewood’s director of facilities, has been offering tours of the building for people interested in purchasing the property. When asked what groups had toured so far, he said a real estate group was interested but did not provide further description.
Valerie Mockus, a village council member and Hebron’s mayor-elect, holds hope that the building will serve a positive purpose for the community. Mockus is a fifth-generation resident of Hebron and attended school at Hebron Elementary during the ’70s. She currently lives in a former church built in 1903 in Hebron that she and her husband have renovated and transformed into their home.
Mockus would like to see the school building put to use for the community. She hopes that the village and Lakewood School District can work together to allow for the building to pass into the hands of the village. However, Mockus says that she is not able to speak for the community, as there has been little to no discourse around the topic.
“If we were able to come up with funding and residents wanted it, we’d do our best,” Mockus said. Ideally, with the building’s central location to the village, Mockus said it would be perfect for a community center or library that would be an easy walk for residents. She encourages Hebron residents to reach out to her or any elected official to share their thoughts on the matter.
“It comes down to, how important is it to you to save the land and this building?” Mockus asked.
Hebron Elementary is “one of the most significant buildings in our village,” she added. “It’s really in the DNA of this community.”
Andrew Theophilus writes for TheReportingProject.org, the nonprofit news organization of the Denison University Journalism Program, which is funded in part by the Mellon Foundation and donations from readers.