Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Preserving Buffalo’s Historic Public Schools for the 21st Century 

12-09-2015 17:35

In January 2000 the Buffalo City School District embarked on an ambitious project of reconstructing virtually its entire stock of aging school buildings. Ultimately costing more than $1.3 billion, the project is scheduled to be completed in 2013. Divided into five phases, three of the phases consisting of 31 schools have been completed, the fourth with ten buildings is in construction, and the fifth and final phase of seven buildings will start construction in the fall of 2011. Ultimately 48 Buffalo schools will have been renovated. What most people don’t realize is that this is the largest historic preservation project Buffalo has ever seen.

Like most Rust Belt cities, Buffalo has seen its population drop significantly in the last 50 years. In 1900, Buffalo was the eighth largest city in the United States with 352,387 residents. The city reached its peak in 1950 and ranked 15th with a population of more than 580,000. By 2000, Buffalo had fallen below 300,000 with just over 292,000 people living there. Concurrently school enrollment had also fallen. Records show that more than 90,000 students attended Buffalo public schools in 1937. By 2000 that number had fallen to less than 45,000 students in 78 buildings, and it would continue to fall. By 2010 less than 34,000 students were being educated by the Buffalo Public Schools and 23 schools were closed. While some of this was attributable to people leaving the city, many students had shifted to charter schools. Along with this population drop came smaller budgets leading to reductions in maintenance and capital improvements. 

Financing the Project

The New York State Education Department recognized the obstacles Buffalo and other similar cities were facing and offered an extraordinary amount of building aid—93.7 percent—to reconstruct and update its schools. This aid was in the form of reimbursement for money spent, meaning that the monies had to be raised up front. Unlike suburban and rural school districts, the Buffalo School system does not have its own bonding authority. It must rely on the City of Buffalo’s bonding which has always been limited due to the City’s own fiscal constraints. A different funding mechanism had to be developed. 

Special legislation was passed by the New York State legislature to allow Buffalo to pursue financing other than the general municipal bonds sold by the City of Buffalo. To facilitate this a Joint School Construction Board (JSCB) was developed with members from the school district, City, and comptroller’s office overseeing the project. They in turn hired the LP Ciminelli Construction Companies to act as “Program Provider.” Ciminelli would finance the project through the Erie County Industrial Development Agency (IDA) and then, in partnership with the school district facilities department, they would hire architects for programming and design, and then procure contractors and manage construction. The 93.7 percent building aid from New York State would directly go to pay the IDA bonds. The remaining 6.3 percent would be paid through interest on the bonds and Energy Performance Contracts developed by Johnson Controls. Reconstruction would cost the Buffalo City School District virtually nothing. 

Taking Stock

Once the project was underway, the first step was to survey and evaluate all 78 Buffalo public schools to determine what work was needed to provide students with the best 21st-century learning environments. Studies have found a significant increase in students’ performance when they are taught in buildings with ample day lighting, proper temperature control, and up-to-date technology. Generally, Buffalo’s schools were still safe and clean and well maintained by their custodial staff, but a number of deficiencies were found. These included inadequate power for computers and electronics, old plumbing, drafty windows, leaky roofs, inefficient heating systems, disabled ventilation systems, and worn finishes. 

What also became apparent, however, was the inherent quality of most of these buildings. Constructed entirely of masonry, with large windows, terrazzo floors, rich woodwork, and elaborate auditoriums, these building could not be duplicated today and would surely last decades more. It was determined that instead of building new schools, the existing ones would be renovated. 

Buffalo’s schools were designed in a range of architectural styles by some of Western New York’s most prolific architects. These include the ornate French Renaissance–inspired Lafayette High School (1901) and the Beaux Arts City Honors (1912, Esenwein & Johnson), the classical South Park High School (1914, Green & Wicks), and East High (1926) and its twin Riverside High School (1923, F. J. & W. A. Kidd—the firm that worked with the Saarinens on Buffalo’s Kleinhans Music Hall). 

The majority of schools are from 1920s and 1930s, a period when Buffalo built 24 new schools and 26 additions. To facilitate this massive undertaking, the visionary school superintendent Ernest Hartwell hired prominent St. Louis architect William Ittner as consulting architect and employed a cooperative known as Associated Buffalo Architects, Incorporated, to carry out the plan production and supervisory service. This unique collaboration of 35 prominent Buffalo architects was headed by Charles Wood and included E. B. Green, Duane Lyman, Max Beirel, and Frederick Backus. Buffalo Board of Education Architect Ernest Crimi would design almost a dozen schools during this time, including Schools 67 and 80 (discussed later).  
Involvement of the SHPO

Claire Ross of the New York State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) wrote in her letter supporting the National Register nomination that these schools represent “the response of the City to expanding school-age population in the booming community and they stand as a reminder of the importance of public education in the history of Buffalo. Designed by local architects, these schools are typical of the period of significance and are fine examples of standardized school design of the early twentieth century.” 

It was decided that virtually all of the Buffalo schools constructed before World War II were eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, and that plans and specifications for the renovations would be reviewed by the SHPO. While many would think that review by the state historic preservation office would be a burden, the school district treated it as an opportunity to define the direction of the project. The reviews would ensure that any of the renovations and changes did not adversely affect the historic fabric of the buildings.  

Treatment of Windows

One of the most important elements to be considered was the treatment of windows. No longer would inappropriate aluminum windows with opaque upper panels be used. All of the historic buildings would have their original windows completely restored or else replaced with new ones matching the originals. Where windows were restored, such as at School 80, Highgate Heights, and 97, Harvey Austin, they were removed from the building and taken off site. They were then stripped of paint, repaired, glazed with insulated glass (replacing the original single glass), painted, reinstalled in new weather-stripped frames, and rebalanced. The restored windows are not only sensitive to the design of the building but they provide ample ventilation, insulation, and daylight. Experience has determined them to be far superior to vinyl or aluminum windows. School 67, Discovery, did not have its original windows and therefore received new windows constructed of mahogany that mimicked the originals. 

Accommodating New Uses

A major obstacle the district had to address was accommodating contemporary programs in 80-year-old buildings that may have been constructed for totally different functions. School 97, Harvey Austin, redesigned by Cannon Design, was formerly a vocational high school filled with large shops for culinary arts and furniture construction. In its change to a middle school, Cannon reconfigured these rooms to smaller classrooms while maintaining the full-height renovated factory windows and the north-facing sawtooth skylights. The result is wonderfully bright classrooms, labs, and offices that preserve the integrity of the original architecture. From the outside one could not tell the function has changed.

Both School 80, Highgate Heights, and School 67, Discovery, originally had the same building plan—a one-storey central portion surrounded by three levels of classrooms—yet their contemporary uses would be different. School 80 is a traditional neighborhood elementary school located in University Heights with a program that revolves around literacy. Project architects Flynn Battaglia based their design on this theme. Inside, all of the finishes and colors are reminiscent of those used when the school was first built, such as the round schoolhouse light fixtures, oak woodwork (including most of the original cabinetry), and rich linoleum flooring. In the center of the building, both figuratively and physically, is the library covered by restored skylights in the courtyard roof. Two areas not envisioned in the 1920s when the building was originally designed were the cafeteria (children used to walk home for lunch) and science labs. These were accommodated in new additions at either end of the building. 

Its twin, School 67, located at the opposite end of the city in south Buffalo, houses a new elementary-level program entitled Discovery that encourages hands-on learning. School 67 also needed more room, but instead of creating additions on either end, Hamilton Houston & Lownie Architects decided to demolish the one-storey center portion and replace it with a multi-level library topped by a lightweight fabric roof. Its floors are reached by a soaring glass-enclosed elevator with four bright-red support columns. In keeping with the “discovery” theme, all the interior frame work for the roof is exposed and the electrical conduit, wiring, plumbing, and sprinkler lines throughout the building are left open for the children to see. Buffalo has been able to provide its students with some truly unique buildings housing programs unavailable in any other local school district, including a Visual and Performing Arts School with a state-of-the-art theater, television studio, art rooms, and black box theater in a former junior high school. Burgard Vocational High School, located in a 1920s vintage building, trains students in auto mechanics and machinery. This concrete-frame building has integral ramps so that vehicles can be driven to different levels. Once worn and outdated, it has been renovated to 21st-century standards. 

An Investment in Communities

Ultimately no one can deny the success of this reconstruction and historic preservation program. The district realizes that strong, successful schools are vital for the city to thrive. In addition, these facilities are the focal points within their neighborhoods and can be the catalyst for community redevelopment. Neighborhood schools are assets that the suburban districts don’t offer. With this project, Buffalo has been able to maintain the integrity of its architecturally significant schools while creating learning environments that are a match to any other in New York State. 

Publication Date: Summer 2011

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Author(s):Paul McDonnell