Forum News

How to Save a Threatened High School?<br>Try Doggedness and Research 

12-09-2015 17:35

In January 1997 preservationists in Louisville, Ky., faced a problem that has become all too familiar in communities throughout the U.S. The Jefferson County school system announced plans to demolish the old Male High School building, a downtown landmark listed in the National Register of Historic Places and beloved of legions of alumni who attended between 1915, when the building opened, and 1991, when Male High moved into a new building and the school system started using the old one for office space, a preschool day-care center, and other programs.

Alumni and preservationists objected immediately to the school system`s plan, as did several city aldermen and two school board members. Fortunately, the opponents of demolition had some time.

The school system planned to demolish old Male High and its adjacent sports stadium in order to erect two new facilities: a one-story preschool day-care center on the stadium site and, in place of the school building, a new stadium and track for Central High School, another urban high school located two-plus miles away that had been seeking new athletic facilities for decades. The old building could not be torn down until the new day-care center was completed and ready to receive current enrollees.

Led by architect Steve Wiser and former alderman Allan Steinberg, the Louisville Historical League and its allies set about persuading the city that their goals could be met without demolition. They argued that the old school building could be adapted for the preschool and the new stadium erected on the site of the old. They developed cost estimates proving that the alternative plan was less expensive than school board projections that included demolition.

They led tours of the building for interested preservationists and school board property managers. They insisted that the city hold public hearings and lined up Dean David Mohney of the University of Kentucky College of Architecture to speak about the importance of pre-serving older schools within a statewide and national context. The broad public outcry generated media attention.

The school board insisted, however, that the Old Male building could not be renovated until new quarters had been built for the day-care center and the children moved. The new day-care center would have to be built in place of the existing stadium. Saving Old Male would require finding a different site for the new football stadium.

Research yielded several possible locations. After meetings with property owners and completion of several feasibility studies comparing various sites with the school board`s requirements, Wiser and his colleagues found the best location to be a site just three blocks from Central High that comprised a large parking lot and a distribution warehouse on a railroad siding, owned by the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Now emerged a new reason for saving Old Male. Central High families strongly favored a nearby location for their athletic facility. Undercurrents of racial inequity threatened to bubble to the surface as the school board defended a location that would require taking money from Central`s academic budget to cover transportation across town from a traditionally African American school to the site of its former arch rival, the traditionally white Old Male.

The Louisville Courier-Journal (Gannett) was inclined to consider a sale if a comparable property on a railroad siding could be found for a new newsprint warehouse. With help from the community, the preservationists identified a second site just two blocks away.

The supporters of Old Male had long argued that the downtown building was a valuable property that could be sold profitably to private investors as a rehabilitation project. When a group of Old Male alumni led by automobile dealer Bill Collins came forward with a plan to buy and renovate the building for offices, a private day-care center, a gymnasium, a public auditorium, and possibly a restaurant, all the pieces were in place for a happy outcome. The pieces came together at a meeting convened by Mayor Dave Armstrong at the end of 1998. The Courier-Journal agreed to move to a new warehouse in exchange for the promise of a possible street closing near their central office. The warehouse property for the sports complex would be sold to the school board for $2.4 million, and the Courier-Journal donated $100,000 to the board for any program it wished.

On July 22, 1999, city officials held a news conference on the steps of old Male High School to announce approval of a contract to sell the 84-year-old building to Spectrum LLC, the alumni investment group, for $551,000. The investors predicted that the $4 million rehab would be completed in less than two years. Meanwhile, the new Central High football field and track should be ready for use in fall 2000. The former Courier-Journal warehouse will house concession stands, locker rooms, offices, and other school and community facilities.

"This is a rare occasion when a collaboration has produced all winners," Mayor Dave Armstrong said at the news conference. "We have saved a wonderful piece of Louisville`s history."

Publication Date: January/February 2000

#historicschools #ForumNews

Author(s):Edith S. Bingham