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Historic Neighborhood Schools: "E" is for Endangered 

12-09-2015 17:35

Not far from the White House in Washington, D.C., a former African-American Free School, built in 1886, may be razed to make room for a new office building. In Santa Fe, N. Mex., neighbors and parents fear that four historic neighborhood schools, designed by New Mexico`s pre-eminent architect, may be abandoned simply because new construction is viewed as better than a renovated historic school. In Corning, N.Y., three grand historic schools may soon be abandoned in favor of new facilities five miles from town. A New York State policy funds the construction of new schools instead of providing money to maintain and upgrade older and existing ones. Corning`s older schools don`t have a fighting chance.

These examples illustrate what is happening in communities from Billings, Mont., to Macon, Ga. Older and historic schools are being abandoned, demolished, and replaced at an alarming rate. The relentless pressures to give up on these buildings, which have touched everyone`s life-who doesn`t vividly recall their grade school?-have earned America`s historic neighborhood schools a place on the National Trust`s 2000 list of Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places.

The threats to these buildings are real and complex. We are not simply talking about saving a historic building and reusing it as an office building or country inn. In general, little controversy surrounds these types of adaptive use. But the education of our children, their safety, and the buildings in which they are housed evoke an emotional and passionate response from parents, educators, school boards, and local governments. And, rightly so. Parents and educators understandably want children to be safe in the event of a fire or earthquake; they want spacious classrooms and up-to-date computer labs; they want out-standing facilities from libraries to science labs to playing fields.

The mayor and city council members want to show how prosperous their town is-just look at the new high school built on the outskirts of town! Furthermore, while the people making decisions about school facilities may have an attachment to the 1925 high school, their primary goal, of course, is to educate children, not to preserve buildings. Given the pressure to provide excellent educational facilities, over-come decades of deferred maintenance, and save limited education funding, decision-makers may simply find it easier to plan a new school than to work to preserve the old one. In fact, they rarely have the expertise to fairly consider the benefits of cost-effective proposals to renovate historically significant neighborhood school buildings.

The National Trust`s goal is a level playing field for historic neighborhood schools. This is also a smart growth issue. Unfortunately, many historic neighborhood schools are replaced by characterless sprawl schools with acres of parking built on the outskirts of the community and accessible only by car. In contrast to these "advance scouts" of sprawl, historic neighborhood schools allow children to walk to school and be with friends from their own neighborhood. Students grow up immersed in the historic school`s traditions and surrounded by distinguished and often unique architecture. Families without school-age children should also be concerned. The closing of a neighborhood school negatively affects the surrounding locality.

Schools are traditional community anchors and architectural landmarks. Neighborhoods evolve around schools and parents choose their homes based on the quality of local schools. When schools are poorly maintained or abandoned, families move away and neighborhoods decline. When schools are rehabilitated, families return, and property values rise.

The National Trust has compiled a list of endangered schools from around the country to draw attention to the plight of historic school buildings. The following examples illustrate the threats to America`s historic neighborhood schools.

Stevens School, Washington, D.C.
After years of deferred maintenance and major development pressures, Stevens School is likely to be deemed surplus by its school district. One of the city`s oldest surviving elementary schools, originally built for African-American students, it was named after Pennsylvania congressman and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. In 1886, the Stevens School was constructed with 12 rooms and a large assembly hall. The school served a diverse West End community composed of former slaves and prosperous middle-class African Americans who had been free for generations. Over the years, alterations and rebuilding were carried out by ingeniously adapting much of the existing structure. Today, the West End area is highly desirable for office space. With no substantial investment in upgrading and repair of the building in the last two decades, Stevens School may soon be demolished and the land sold to the highest bidder.

Corning Free Academy, Corning, New York
In August 1999, the Corning Board of Education announced plans to construct a new middle school approximately five miles outside the city of Corning. This action would result in the closure of two neighborhood middle schools-the Corning Free Academy and the Northside-Blodgett Middle School- and seal the fate of the former Painted Post High School, currently used for storage. The site for the new 1,600-student school is a 50-acre tract of land near a proposed Wal-Mart. The Corning Free Academy, completed in 1922 in the Romanesque Revival style, was designed by New York City architect Howard Greenly. The imposing four-story brick building anchors the Southside neighborhood, an area comprising 19th- and early 20th-century homes, churches, and tree-lined streets. The Academy, one of Corning`s most architecturally distinguished build-ings, is located in the center of Corning`s National Register Historic District.

The Northside-Blodgett Middle School and the Painted Post High School are excellent examples of Classical/Colonial Revival public design of the early 20th century. Both buildings were determined eligible for the National Register for their architectural significance. The Academy and Northside-Blodgett have been neglected for some time and the renovation and expansion of both sites is considered too costly. Parents, preservationists, alumni, and neighborhood and taxpayers groups believe that New York State Education Department policies have forced the city of Corning to propose a new "sprawl school" over renovation of these walk-able community anchors. Among other policy barriers, NYS education department rules do not make funds avail-able for routine repairs and maintenance, but instead support major capital projects using guidelines that older existing buildings usually cannot meet, such as minimum acreage and classroom size requirements.

John Gaw Meem Schools, Santa Fe, New Mexico
The belief that new is better may lead to the abandonment and demolition of four historic neighborhood schools designed by John Gaw Meem, New Mexico`s most prominent architect who created Santa Fe`s omnipresent Territorial Revival architectural style. Salazar, Alvord, Carlos Gilbert, and Acequia Madre Elementary Schools, all designed by Meem and built between 1945 and 1953, have been designated "amenity challenged" schools by the school district. Indeed, Meem`s historic schools have been condemned in a school district report-published before the completion of a planned study of the historic schools-as "schools that can never by brought up to standard through renovation, regardless of the money expended." Given their "amenity challenged" label, the future is bleak for these schools. In fact, Salazar Elementary School, in the heart of the Casa Alegre Neighborhood, is slated for demolition by October 2000. As the above examples illustrate, the threats to America`s historic schools are daunting: deferred maintenance; the perception that new is better and more cost effective; building code deficiencies; population shifts; consolidation into mega-schools and larger districts; ignorance of rehabilitation options; and public policies slanted toward new construction, to name just a few. As preservationists-and, in many cases, as concerned parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles of school-age children- we need to ask questions and challenge conventional thinking. To save America`s older and historic schools we need to share solutions and get the word out that older and historic schools can be successfully used for years to come to educate our children and future generations.

Publication Date: July/August 2000

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Author(s):Rob Nieweg & Byrd Wood