Renovation of Little Italy's historic Alta House is a win-win for all involved

It’s a Wednesday morning in January, and for the first time in months, the Alta House in Little Italy is quiet.

Since June, as many as 40 construction workers have been laboring under a strict deadline – gutting the electrics, installing floor tile and staining the Alta House’s tall windows. All for the aim of renovating the landmark for its new local residents – the Cleveland Montessori School.

As Tina Schneider, president of Cleveland Montessori, walks around the Alta House’s voluminous library – set to be converted into an elementary school classroom – she nods hello to construction workers while informing the teachers of approaching move-in dates.

After spearheading a lightning-fast 18-month renovation process, Schneider, who has run Cleveland Montessori for a decade, affirms that their decision to move into the space couldn’t have been more appropriate.
<span class="content-image-text">Exterior of the Alta House in 1928</span>Exterior of the Alta House in 1928

“It’s a great opportunity,” she says. “[Maria] Montessori talks about ‘learning where you live’ a lot. And having students be here and learning about the history of the building is going to be fantastic. After all, it just makes us that more part of the community.”

In June 2014 Schneider found out that Cleveland Montessori was being kicked out of their room in the Holy Rosary Church, which they had occupied for 20 years, due to the church’s own need for space.

With an end-of-2015 eviction date, Schneider had to look elsewhere for housing her 137 students. She and her team began searching that June for a future home. Almost immediately, few prospects led to a small panic.

“We thought, oh my goodness,” Schneider recalls. “It’s not good to find out you have to move in such a short time. We didn’t have a lot of options either. On the other hand, it forced us to look, and look hard.”

Around the same time, Jackie Anselmo, president of the Alta House board, which oversees events at the 115-year-old community center, was speaking to her fellow board members – most born and raised in the neighborhood – about the state of disrepair of the House.

It turns out that Cleveland Montessori and Alta House could come together and solve each other’s problems: the school would have a new home and the House would once again serve the neighborhood’s youth.

This past Tuesday, Jan. 19, Cleveland Montessori began officially began classes in the newly-renovated Alta House.

A beacon for immigrants

Famously named after Alta Rockefeller, the daughter of John D. Rockefeller, Alta House is one of the largest community buildings in Little Italy. It was once the go-to hub for a bustling neighborhood of Italian-American immigrants.

Completed in February 1900 the Alta Social Settlement was originally primed to operate as a nursery and kindergarten, housing 218 kids at its early peak. In its heyday Alta House was a place of learning and a center of community. Rockefeller even proposed it house a branch of the Cleveland Public Library.

<span class="content-image-text">Alta House being torn down in December 1980</span>Alta House being torn down in December 1980Even after World War II, Italian immigrants continued to flock to Alta House for everything from learning English to boxing matches in the gym. Kids in marching bands practiced there, others played on basketball teams.

When a series of fires in the late 70s destroyed the original building facing Mayfield Road, the Alta House sat relatively untouched – community participation seemed to dwindle and the remaining structure became a site of redevelopment for surrounding hospitals.

The last addition to Alta House in 1985, thanks to a $50,000 Community Development Block Grant from the City of Cleveland, added a three-arched addition to the facade in front. Yet that addition was the extent of any major improvements. In 1984 the city deemed it an historical landmark – a move protecting it from being razed in entirety.

Wasting no time

The Alta House has continued to host get-together events for the seniors of the neighborhood, yet lapsed on programming for kids because, as Anselmo says, “we didn’t have youth in the neighborhood like we used to.” Since then, she says the overall focus of the house waned.

Anselmo and the Alta House board wanted to make the former settlement house the beacon of Little Italy once again – even entice families who had raised kids in the area to move back from the suburbs they flocked to in the 90s.

Yet, the board hadn’t sufficient funds for any sizable additions and financial prospects looked thin. Alta House’s future seemed to be up in the air.

That is, until the summer of 2014, when Schneider heard about the board’s aspirations. That November she approached Anselmo with an idea that would solve both of their problems: Have the soon-to-be homeless Montessori School relocate into a possibly-renovated Alta House. The two agreed wholeheartedly. Both like to think of such serendipity as being “a gift.”

“[Cleveland Montessori] needed a new building and we needed a new purpose,” Anselmo exclaims. “It was a no brainer for us. So we said, ‘Yes, let’s move forward right away with this.’”

With the December 2015 deadline in mind, Anselmo and Schneider quickly hired Newbury-based architect Joe Linek of LinekStudio and contracted The Snavely Group for the eventual gutting and build.

Most project teams take at least a year just for the feasibility study, fundraising and to allow the architect sufficient time to draft up plans. Yet Schneider and crew had all three components running simultaneously, allowing minimal room for error.

The majority of the funds raised for the renovations, like many projects in the Little Italy, were contributed by members of the neighborhood. The Alta House receiving historical tax credits, Schneider says, helped tremendously.

Six months later, by mid-2015, the team was happily ready to break ground. Cleveland Montessori’s new home was getting a facelift.

Because of the building’s historic landmark status, many of its initial aesthetics were left carefully unscathed while renovating the building for the school.

With Linek at the helm, swimming pools were gutted for third-grade classrooms, walls were built for napping areas and modern fire alarm and plumbing systems were installed. Yet the building’s interior – from its 100-year-old sliding doors to the “A” on its gym floor – still looks, for the most part, the same. It’s why Linek, whose grandparents worked at Alta House in the 1940s, calls it one of the most personal jobs in his portfolio.

“I believe in the respect and the history of buildings,” he says. “I didn’t want to change what was there, unless we had to. Our main goal was to try and preserve the history, to preserve the aesthetics – and to implement the basic minimum changes to incorporate the school.”

A return to the community

While Tuesday was the official start date of classes in the Alta House, Schneider is still in the process of dreaming up future programming. She knows the Montessori philosophy – learning where you live – will allow a fruitful rebirth of what was the Alta House’s original modus operandi: To keep the community connected.

<span class="content-image-text">Cleveland Montessori classes at the Alta House</span>Cleveland Montessori classes at the Alta House

Schneider is now busy fundraising for the second phase – a 7,000 square foot addition for office space, kitchens and another classroom – while Anselmo plans future programming to include everything from Zumba courses to senior-led community gardening. And because they’re in Little Italy, she’s planning to host Italian classes too.

Foreseeing the effects in the faraway future, Anselmo and Schneider both are crossing fingers and hoping that their milestone renovation will encourage Clevelanders to settle down once again in a neighborhood that boasts a sizeable school (along with a Montessori high school down the street in University Circle).

As far as future remodeling goes, Schneider assures that current Little Italy residents need not fret about upcoming changes for the school. The Alta House will always be the Alta House.

“Oh, and don’t worry,” she says smiling. “The bocce courts will stay there. Nobody is going to touch the bocce courts.”

Mark Oprea
Mark Oprea

About the Author: Mark Oprea

Mark Oprea is a regular contributor to FreshWater Cleveland. He’s written for the Pacific Standard, OZY, and Cleveland Magazine, and was a correspondent in Mexico in 2018. He lives in Ohio City. More of his work can be found on his personal website.