SIOUX CITY | Shirley McLeod couldn't help but smile as she looked at a painted mural with the inscription "Thanks for the Memories, 1892 - 1972."
After all, the Sioux City woman was standing on the stage of Central High School, the school that she graduated from in 1952.
It was also the school that educated "Days of Our Lives"' star MacDonald Carey and twins Pauline and Esther Friedman, who both became better known, respectively, as advice gurus, "Dear Abby" and "Ann Landers."
"Every time I come here, it takes me back to an earlier time," McLeod said, softly. "I had plenty of good times in this old building."
A colorful part of Sioux City's history
Central High School, 610 13th St., served Sioux City for 80 years.
Originally constructed for slightly more than $100,000 in 1892, the building boasted many modern amenities such as thermostatically controlled heating and electric bells.
Yet Central's stately exterior that included sandstone walls and towers on each corner gave the building a decidedly castle-like presence.
Originally called simply "The High School," 290 students and nine teachers were part of its first-year enrollment.
Quickly, the number of students swelled to 965 by 1913 and an expansion was built on the building's north side.
Renamed Central High School in 1924 after East High School was opened, the building affectionately known as "the Castle on the Hill" shut down in anticipation of the construction of three new schools in 1972.
The following year, the structure was added to the National Registry of Historic Places and the not-for-profit Castle on the Hill Association purchased the building from the Sioux City school district for $1 in 1976.
For the next 27 years, the "castle" stood empty.
That is until the doors opened once again, only not as a school.
Sioux City's former Central High had been converted into apartment units for residents in Sioux City's near northside.
New life for a historic building
While the Castle on the Hill Association assumed responsibility for Central's old auditorium, gymnasium and "dungeon," the Omaha-based NuStyle Development Corporation converted the school's former classrooms and labs into one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments.
Since then, the Omaha-based Seldin Company has been managing the Castle on the Hill Apartments.
"Converting old and historic schools into apartments has become a growing trend," Michael D. Fallesen, Seldin Company's vice president of affordable housing, explained. "Many old classrooms feature large windows and vaulted ceilings, which lend themselves to loft-style living. A majority of the buildings are in older neighborhoods that have ready access to transportation routes."
According to Castle on the Hill Apartments property manager Cassandra Armenta, both of those factors are big selling points to her tenants.
"You can't really pin down the types of tenants that we have," she admitted. "We have some older tenants who may remember a high school was once here. But we also have young families who enjoy the building's central location."
Castle on the Hill apartments range in size from 628-square-feet at the small end to 1,492-square-feet at its largest. Rent is determined largely by the income of the tenant.
Showing off the various types of apartments, Armenta points out many of their more modern amenities like controlled-access doors, elevators, a fitness center and central air.
"People are always surprised when they see these apartments," she noted. "These units truly have a urban feel to them."
Still, Armenta acknowledged she still liked the quirkiness of the historic building, which included a life-sized statue of Abraham Lincoln in its atrium as well as public restrooms that retain their vintage charm.
"The units are truly modern," she said, "but we wanted to maintain the building's high school origins."
Something old, something new
That was important to the Seldin Company's Fallesen, who said he appreciates Central's art deco origins.
"These old school were built to last," he said. "They're impressive to look at and need to be preserved for the next generation."
Even more than that, Fallesen said affordable housing can help reinvigorate older neighborhoods.
"It would be a shame to see Central High go to waste," he added.
Along with other volunteers, McLeod maintains the Castle on the Hill gift shop and a small museum dedicated to Central memorabilia.
In addition, the school's old gymnasium has been used as a site for several class reunions, concerts and, even, a practice location for the Natural Born Rollers roller derby team.
Glancing at the ceiling of Central's gym, McLeod points to an old scoreboard that still hangs on the wall.
"Did I ever envision my old classroom becoming an apartment?" she asked. "No, but it is what it is."
Even so, McLeod is happy that her old school is getting a second life.