What started out as a basic remodeling project is turning into a tribute to a Decorah jewel.

The Carrie Lee Auditorium, originally built in 1922, is being returned to its Art Deco style.

"It was just going to be a basic renovation," said Carrie Lee Principal Cheryl Miller.

"But having an interest in architecture and the period, I just kind of hoped we could embellish it to this point."

Last month, the Decorah School Board heard a presentation from Interior Designer Constance Johnson, a friend of Miller's who recently relocated to Decorah and is donating her services to the project.

"I think of it as a little jewel box inside this school," said Johnson of the renovation project, which is expected to cost the District approximately $250,000.

The history

Carrie Lee Elementary originally was built as Decorah's high school in 1922.

The auditorium was combined with the gymnasium, and the two spaces were divided by a set of folding doors.

In 1934, Decorah architect Charles Altfillisch was commissioned to enlarge the school by extending it to the west and adding a north-south wing on the west side, in addition to replacing the original gymnasium. The extension and wing were identical to the original building in their Art Deco style.

It was during this renovation that the stage portion of the auditorium was enlarged, and a permanent wall was constructed between the two spaces.

In 1998, Carrie Lee Elementary (then the Decorah Middle School) was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

On the application, it was mentioned that at the time, much of the interior woodwork and the lighting fixtures appeared to be original.

Looking for cues

Johnson has been working with high school art instructor Liz Lorentzen to uncover the "historic cues" of the building, in an effort to return it to its original flavor.

Johnson explained that historically, after World War I, design went into a period of "progress and modernism."

"They started using strong geometric shapes with curving, linear forms. There were sharply defined lines with stylized relief panels combined with rich colors, metallic finishes and more lavish ornamentation," said Johnson.

"With this renovation, we're trying to be reflective of the period in highlighting the architecture that exists. It's amazing it is still here," said Johnson.

Miller said some of the building's "cues" include chevrons within the stonework outside the gymnasium.

"From there, Constance mimicked those types of pieces," said Miller.

Johnson added the color pallet for the renovation isn't bold, but more from the bronze and olive family.

"We're accenting it with metallics and finishes. Then we'll add a pop of color with a red curtain and other architectural things," she said.

Johnson said she chose the wallpaper after a good amount of study.

"It is inspired by the beautiful design work of Edgar Brandt," said Johnson, adding Brandt is considered a master of Art Deco ironwork.

"It's an African and tropical influence paper, which is typical Art Deco, combined with a little whimsy for the kids," she said. It will also emulate the "scrolly" pattern which will be used in the new balcony railing.

"Good design carried out its function. And working with Cheryl, we're going to make this be functional for an elementary school, but it will still be beautiful," said Johnson.

Many resources

At last month's Board meeting, Superintendent Mike Haluska said Johnson has been helping the District find vendors, many of them local, who are willing to complete the work in a relatively inexpensive manner.

Local vendors working on the project to date include: Decorah Electric, S.B. Bolson and Sons, Tom's Painting, Wadsworth Construction and Fashion Floor, all of Decorah, and Gary Thomas Woods of Spring Grove, Minn.

In addition, the Decorah Community School District Foundation continues to raise money for the project by selling auditorium seats at a cost of $250 to help finance the project.

Anyone wishing to make a tax-deductible contribution to the auditorium should contact Ben Grimstad at 382-9661 or Rich Amundson at 382-2542.

Looking ahead

Miller said she hopes the entire community will treasure the historic space, and reserve it for special occasions by calling the central office.

"It's an intimate theatre and a small space," she said.

In addition, Miller said she hopes the project will be a learning opportunity and students will embrace the project as theirs.

"This is their school, and I think this is a good example to set for them with regard to respect for property and sustainability," said Miller.

"We've got one chance to do this right."