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Former Kenmore school razed after fire: What happened to beloved mural?

By Mark J. Price Akron Beacon Journal

Published January 19, 2022

A wrecking crew tears down the former Lawndale Elementary School on Friday after a fire destroyed the Akron building at 2330 25th St. SW in Kenmore.


Not much was left standing after the weekend.


A wrecking crew methodically tore down the former Lawndale Elementary School on Friday after a three-alarm fire gutted the Akron building Jan. 10 at 2330 25th St. SW in Kenmore.

A backhoe operator pulled down the stubborn walls while another worker trained a hose on the smashed debris to minimize the dust.


“Oh, geez,” said Lawndale alumnus David Robinson, 88, of Akron. “I hate to hear that. I went to school there.”


Lawndale Elementary was built in 1912 when Kenmore was a separate village from Akron. Over the generations, thousands of children filed through its hallowed halls. Lawndale celebrated its centennial in 2012, but the Akron school board decided to close it in 2016 because of declining enrollment at the 12-classroom building.


All that’s left are the memories — and a mountain of charred rubble.


Students painted mural in 1947

Compounding the sadness among alumni was the belief that a beloved, irreplaceable mural was lost in the fire.


Robinson had helped paint it in 1947 with his seventh-grade classmates under the direction of art teacher Virginia Goson.


The artwork, which decorated a stairwell on the top floor of the three-story building, celebrated the rebirth of Akron’s rubber industry after World War II. The mural included scenes of rubber plantation workers tapping trees, a ship crossing the ocean, chemists working in a laboratory and a rubber worker building a tire.


“We were just kids and we enjoyed doing it,” Robinson recalled.

Art teacher Virginia Goson supervises as Lawndale Elementary School seventh graders put the finishing touches on an Akron mural in May 1947. In the foreground are Guy Thrams and David Robinson. In the background are, from left, John Reffner, Donald Holliday, James Dorton and Hubert Schaneman.


Among the other students who worked on the painting were John Reffner, Donald Holliday, James Dorton, Hubert Schaneman, Guy Thrams and Grace Prats Gillings.


Robinson said Goson was a young teacher, maybe a year removed from college, when she directed the project. Robinson had never worked on a mural before.


“Heavens no,” he said. “She just took a group of boys and gave us a chance to get out of school, I guess.”


He believes they worked on the painting in a hallway before the artwork was raised in the stairwell. Robinson doesn’t remember how long the mural took, but judging by the size of the paintbrushes, it must have been delicate, painstaking work.


“They were just the small brushes that you use in art class,” he said. “They were not very big.”


The children used tempera paint and favored muted tones: blues, browns, creams and grays. At the bottom of the mural, they lettered a single word: “RUBBER.”

Account

Robinson said he was proud of the finished product. The painting was 10 feet high and 8 feet wide. Once it went up, it didn’t come down.


“I’ll tell you a story about that mural,” Robinson said. “They painted the interior of the building that summer. The painters wanted to take the mural down and paint the walls.


“And they wouldn’t let them. They said, ‘No way.’ I don’t know if they didn’t know how to get it back up again. They never did paint where that mural hung. They painted around it.”

Retired art teacher Virginia Goson takes a portrait with former students Guy Thrams, David Robinson and Jim Dorton in 2011 in front of the mural they created in 1947 at Lawndale Elementary School in Akron.


Reunion at Lawndale

Robinson returned to the school in 2011 for a mini reunion of mural painters. He, Dorton and Thrams took a portrait in front of the mural with their former teacher, Gosen, who had retired in 1974.

“It was about the time of the war, and we wanted to do something about Akron,” Gosen recalled at the time.


“And I let the boys just go. I was their teacher. I just let them go paint.”


She died in 2017 at age 94.


The Akron school board voted in December 2015 to shut down Lawndale because enrollment had fallen from 350 to 160. Students transferred in the fall of 2016 to Sam Salem Community Learning Center at 1222 W. Waterloo Road.


Private developer Leroy Stowers purchased Lawndale for $44,000 in 2019, but the city ordered the vacant building’s demolition in 2021.


The end came sooner than expected.


Akron firefighters responded to a blaze about 6:30 a.m. Jan. 10 at the old school. The building was engulfed in flames when they arrived. Firefighters battled the blaze for nearly five hours before getting it under control in the freezing conditions. Water from the hoses turned into cascades of ice.


Investigators were trying to determine the cause of the fire last week.


Saddened by the loss of his school, Robinson wondered about the 1947 mural.


“Did the fire damage it in any way?” he asked.


Certainly, it was unlikely to have survived the inferno.


But what if the mural hadn’t been destroyed in the fire? What if it hadn’t been smashed to pieces when the building was demolished?


Search for painting

Contacted Friday, property owner Stowers said he was unaware of the 1947 mural and had not removed it.


Akron Public Schools spokesman Mark Williamson didn’t recall hearing about the painting. He asked Debra Foulk, executive director of business affairs for the district, if she knew about it.


Foulk said the district has a number of items in storage from old school buildings. She asked two employees to check, but the search turned up empty before the long holiday weekend.


Former board member and school namesake Sam Salem, a Kenmore native, said he also had wondered about the mural when he heard that Lawndale had burned.


“I have a slim memory of being told the mural was stashed somewhere,” Salem said.


Stashed somewhere? Might it still exist?


A few months ago, Kenmore Historical Society President Jan Williams had heard about the painting, too.


“I think I know where it is,” she said. “I know it’s a painting from Lawndale, but I don’t know if it’s the one you’re talking about.”


Williams suggested contacting New Beginnings, a thrift store and boutique at Kenmore Boulevard and 13th Street Southwest.


Store founder Tugg Massa, executive director of Akron Say No to Dope, answered the phone.


“I may have come into possession of such an item,” Massa said.


Safe in storage

He invited a reporter to come take a look. In an adjacent storage area, behind some chairs, tables, milk crates, boxes and a giant wooden cross, an 80-square-foot painting leaned against a wall.


“We have moved it several times,” Massa said.


A mile away from the charred ruins of Lawndale, the 1947 mural sat safely in storage. The colorful painting has a few tears, but it’s in good shape.

Tugg Massa, founder of the New Beginnings thrift store on Kenmore Boulevard in Akron, stands Saturday next to a 1947 student mural that used to hang in Lawndale Elementary School.


Massa said it was dropped off anonymously at the thrift store last year by someone who had salvaged it from the school. Store volunteers wondered what to do.


“Someone brought it to me and asked me if I knew what to do with it,” Massa said. “I said, ‘Well, what is is?’ And they said they weren’t sure, but on the back it has ‘Lawndale Elementary.’”


Looking for a good home, they decided to donate it to the Kenmore Historical Society. It’s sitting in storage, waiting for appropriate transportation because it’s such an odd size, he said.


If it hadn’t been salvaged, the mural would have gone up in flames last week. Massa said other people suggested throwing it away, but he made sure it was preserved.


“I didn’t want anything to happen to it,” Massa said.


Lawndale Elementary School is gone forever.


All that’s left are the memories — and a student mural from 1947.


Mark J. Price can be reached at mprice@thebeaconjournal.com.

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