The oldest secondary school in Iceland, Menntaskólinn in Reykjavík (MR), which is perched on the small hill by Lækjargata, won’t go unnoticed when you walk through the city centre. The area surrounding it, growing quite vibrant at the moment due to all the students returning after a long summer vacation, is part of the neighbourhood called Kvosin, which is the oldest in the city.
The school has a history dating back to 1056, although it didn’t move to its current location until 1846. Designed by Danish architect Jørgen H. Koch it was constructed between 1844-46, using imported timber from Norway. At that time it was the largest wooden building in Iceland.
The building is a dignified example of the classic and simple architecture that became popular in Denmark in the middle of the nineteenth century. With wooden panelling and old interior design, the schoolhouse has attracted many well-known individuals who later graduated from MR. The most notable among them probably being the president of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, former president Vigdís Finnbogadóttir and former Prime Minister Davíð Oddsson who was also the chairman of the student body. Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness also studied there for a time.
In 1950 plans were made to tear down the building, as became the inescapable destiny of many other wooden houses in Reykjavík. Heated debates pulled the plug on all such ideas. The ensuing discussion was the impetus behind the establishment of the National Committee on Architectural Heritage in 1970. The MR building was put on the preservation list in 1973 and therefore cannot be destroyed under any circumstances.
“The building is among the country’s most remarkable ones. It is special in many ways, especially in size and shape. At the time of its construction, Reykjavík didn’t have any large buildings like that one,” Magnús Skúlason manager of the Committee and a former student of MR tells the Grapevine.
Throughout the years it has been renovated. The roof was at originally made of wood but around the turn of the last century it was reclad with corrugated iron. The central gable was also enlarged shortly after the construction and new annexes have been built around the main house to meet a growing number of students.
Although the main purpose of the building has always been to house the secondary school, many historical moments have taken place inside. The Icelandic Parliament, Alþingi, was re-established in the school’s assembly hall July 1, 1845 and the national meeting was held in the same place in 1851, where Jón Sigurðsson and other attendees resisting the idea of making Iceland part of Denmark, ended the meeting with the famous quote: “Vér mótmælum allir” or “We all protest.” The meeting is considered a milestone event in the fight for Icelandic independence, finally fruitful in 1944.
“The building has always served its purpose and still does. Although we need to meet the increase in the number of students by enlarging the premises the new accommodations have to be connected with the old house in some way. But even though the classrooms aren’t as up-to-date according to architectural style, they work just fine for an educational institution. It isn’t always necessary to tear down and change everything,” Skúlason says. The school’s flagship will therefore stay unaltered and dominate while its old classrooms keep welcoming freshmen year after year. That’s how it is today, and that’s how it will endure.