Cortez High School, built in 1909 at 121 East First Street in Cortez, was for decades the only public school serving kindergarten through high school in the city. In 1968 the school closed and became the home of school district offices. Today, a Kansas City investment group is attempting to acquire the building to return it to active use.
Construction and Alterations
Cortez High School’s construction in 1909 reflected the national trend favoring school consolidation and the construction of larger, graded schools. The original 1909 structure embodied the “ward school” design, a Late Victorian form typified by hipped roofs, bell towers, masonry construction, and tall, narrow windows. The building itself is a two-story rectangular structure with a flat roof featuring stepped parapets topped by metal coping. The school’s exterior walls were constructed from local sandstone, and the interior features tongue-and-groove hardwood floors and flat plaster walls. Cortez High School stands upon a six-acre lot containing mostly open space. Cortez High School’s north-facing façade is defined by three large walls of windows broken up by the building’s two entrances.
Cortez High School modernized as the national Progressive movement gained strength, with the school implementing specialized classrooms and non-academic facilities such as a gymnasium and a football field.
Cortez High School saw two major periods of alteration in 1924 and 1935. The 1924 additions mimicked the original structure’s style and massing. The 1935 renovations were undertaken to improve the school’s facilities and to adopt the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Rustic architectural style that was popular in Colorado during the 1930s. WPA Rustic architecture generally featured local building materials, local forms, and functional designs. The 1935 expansion used locally quarried stone and contacted Harry Baxstrom, son of the original mason who built the school in 1909, to ensure that the workmanship remained consistent. The WPA also replaced the school’s hipped roof and bell tower from 1909 with a flat roof and stepped parapets, and built a new athletic field at the southern end of the property. Following the 1949 school year, the newly-constructed Montezuma High School became the district’s primary high school, and Cortez High School was renamed the “Calkins School,” functioning as an elementary and middle school.
Transition and Restoration
Following the building’s conversion to administrative offices for the school district in 1968, new dividing walls were installed throughout the school. Students in the district began attending other, newer public schools. In 2000 many of the partitions added in 1968 were removed to restore the historic classroom layout.
By that time, the school’s historic plaster ceiling has degraded in many places, exposing the wooden ceiling joists. In the early 2000s, the State Historical Fund supplied four separate grants to the Calkins School, totaling more than $600,000, to evaluate the structure and perform interior and exterior restoration.
In January 2015, Montezuma-Cortez RE-1 school district officials voted unanimously to sell the historic Calkins Building to a Kansas City investment group for $275,000. The district had the support of the Cortez Historic Preservation Board, despite public concerns that the sale cost was very low for a historic structure and did not recoup the numerous grants awarded to fix up the structure. The Kansas City group states that it is “committed to including some type of public museum and display space in the renovated structure,” and Linda Towle of the Cortez Historic Preservation Board commented that the investors “have done this type of historic preservation before.” In March 2016, Cortez High School was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.