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Can This School Be Saved?

As schools age, administrators face two options: Raze and replace or renovate and restore. Here's wh

With a run down, antiquated school building that's poorly built (not to mention architecturally uninteresting), the problems are obvious. There are the health and safety factors, and then there are comfort concerns. Managing today's technology and security needs also becomes a challenge with old schools. In many districts across the country, the solution seems cut-and-dried. It's time to build a new school.

Even communities that value older buildings sometimes conclude it doesn't make sense to renovate. Take San Antonio Independent School District, for instance. Despite being known for its rich history and dedication to saving historic schools, it decided in 1996 to replace 10 of its 94 schools.

"Facilities that weren't historically or architecturally significant or [that] had big structural problems and were unsafe were on the replacement list," explains Kamal ElHabr, associate superintendent for facilities. After all, some buildings just become too dilapidated and are too costly to renovate."On the other hand, buildings that are significant but had no major issues became historic renovations," he says.

At first look, logic may call for any district to seek a fresh site and then build a more modern facility to accommodate today's technology and curricular requirements and to comply with ADA codes. What better way to renew excitement in the possibilities of education today than to bring a new school into the community?

Square footage also steps in at decision-making time. "If you simply don't have space [in an existing school] to accommodate [an] increase in students, it might make sense to build new," notes Mark Gilberg, research and development manager for the Council of Educational Facilities Planners International.

Unfortunately, says Royce Yeater, midwest director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, there is a tendency by some school boards to look at older schools that could be saved as being too outdated and derelict. "The truth is that in numerous cases, older school buildings can be renovated to 21st century standards with everything we'd expect in a new school," he says.

Renovation Rationale

The popular decision to tear down and try again, of course, isn't being made everywhere. Following are seven good reasons districts should consider renovating an old school:

1. Education's mission and historic preservation click.

"Preserving an historic school sends a clear message to students. We want kids to understand the importance of recycling, and we want to give our children an understanding of continuity. Tearing down an older building and throwing it away isn't a message we want to send," Yeater explains. "Take a look at what education really is. It's not a transfer of information. It's the creation of citizens, making them viable community members," says Clyde Henry, principal of Triad Architects in Columbus, Ohio. You can't save an old building if keeping it is going to harm students or be detrimental to education, he adds. However, one way to transform students into citizens, Henry argues, is to teach them to appreciate history, landmarks, continuity, cooperation and a sense of the past, present and future.

2. Preservation projects bring history to life. "Students can better understand historic events like racial integration when they imagine them occurring down the hall," Henry says. "The building actually becomes a teaching tool."

The building renovation process itself can be a great time for students to learn about their school's history and re-discover the structure's mythologies. During the interior restoration of Greenfield (Ohio) Exempted Village Schools' Edward Lee McClain High School, hard hatequipped students gathered all the trash from behind the decades-old lockers being removed. "Like good archeologists, they documented every [item] and tried to place what year it was [from]," Henry explains. Through old notes-some dating from the 1920s-students discovered that, while their predecessors may have used slightly different language, they were dealing with familiar teen issues. Suddenly, it became clear that "the world was not much different 70 years ago as it is today. Students documented their findings and [that record] became the school's treasure," Henry says.

3. The building has high sentimental value.

Older neighborhood schools, typically built as the center of their communities and within walking distance for many students, are packed with meaning and memories for town residents. And these profound community ties to schools prove to be quite a force in tug-ofwar decisions to raze or replace. One example is Seattle's Greenwood Elementary School, circa 1909. The city's 1995 bond issue slated the school for replacement. But the school board heard community members' cry loud and clear-the building was important to its neighborhood. So Burr Lawrence Rising + Bates Architects, which serves the Pacific Northwest and had worked with the district before, facilitated a community forum to explore the options. The vast majority of local citizens showed up in favor of renovation. As a result, most of the building was saved, and an addition provided needed classroom space and a gym. In the experience of John Vacchiery, the district's director of facilities planning and enrollment, people in the surrounding community are typically those most interested in saving the school. Educators, on the other hand, often need some convincing. "When you save an older school with its history and culture, at the same time you tend to have to make some compromises in the educational program because you don't have complete freedom on how you lay out all the classrooms," he says. For example, the small schools concept requires intimate, separated class spaces, and a school wanting to offer seminartype courses would need very large classrooms.

4. Tearing down may be against policy-or against the law. In countless communities across the country, buildings actually haverights.

If a school has been declared a landmark or significant historic structure, the district would first have to get official clearance before going ahead with any construction efforts that would alter the building. Associate Superintendent ElHabr of San Antonio notes that, as a result of the city's penchant for preserving its historic structures, any demolition plans must first go through an historic review board. The story is the same in Seattle; although the city is relatively new, a large number of its buildings have received landmark status. Chicago and a few other large school districts have set their own "renovate first" policies. And several states are proactive in encouraging districts to consider renovating their schools instead of building new ones. Maryland's Smart Growth Policy, for one, requires school districts to maintain already-built facilities funded by taxpayers and to minimize urban sprawl fueled by building schools in undeveloped areas. There, about 80 percent of all state school construction funds in the past few years have gone into renovating, rather than creating new facilities, according to a 2003 National Trust for Historic Preservation report.

5. Renovation can retain unique architectural elements- which lend a one-of-a-kind character to the school.

With today's budgets, district leaders can't expect to replicate the quality of the architecture and school spaces that were constructed decades ago, says Tom Bates, principal of BLRB. "The craftsmen are no longer around to do the kind of work we see in schools designed and built at the turn of the century, for instance. In the older buildings, you gain certain architectural qualities that you just don't get in new schools, like beautiful daylight, high ceilings and durable, timeless materials we can't afford to build with in today's school market." To Greenfield, Ohio, the campus of the schools themselves is a community treasure. Entrepreneur Edward Lee McClain built the high school, which was completed in 1917, as a gift to the community. Today, each of the district's five schools is in the center of town, arranged similarly to a college campus. As for architectural elements, McClain's double marble staircase and front lobby stand out. The area is not used by students at all during their school years; at graduation, they walk down the steps for the first time. Adding to school pride are three original murals by famed artist Vesper Lincoln George on display, as well as more than 100 other pieces of sculpture and paintings. The auditorium has a pipe organ and there are Tiffany lamps in the gymnasium. Superintendent Sue Frizell Zint says the marble staircase and artwork aren't roped off or in any way physically guarded from the 600 high school students. "The children respect our traditions," Zint says. "There is a pride and sense of tradition hereyou'll find in no other school because of the historical aspect."

6. Saving an old school might just save money.

Renovations typically cost no more-and usually wind up costing less-than a new building, claim NTHP's Yeater and others. "And one doesn't have to go and find a new site." "Renovating an existing structure may cost in the neighborhood of $60 to $70 per square foot, while demolishing and replacing it puts you up in the $110-plus per square foot range," says San Antonio's ElHabr. Consider the price tag on a 1997 renovation of a school in his district, originally built in 1907 and named Fannin Elementary School. Upon the project's completion, the school was re-named Dorothy C. Pickett Academy, after a long-time teacher in the district. Richard Morales of the local Chesney Morales & Associates, Architects/ Planners designed 12 classrooms, bathrooms, a library, a serving kitchen and a stage within the old structure. The firm also restored the original front porch and replaced some of the windows. "The entire renovation cost only $2.4 million," Morales explains. "To replace a school of that size would have cost many millions of dollars." In all, the school has 23,039 square feet of gross total area, including the basement, the first floor with addition and the second floor.

7. A phased renovation is the only financial option.

In the business of school construction, one given is that you can't send students to a new school that's half built. Administrators in the Ste. Genevieve (Mo.) R-II School District know this reality all too well. In the mid-1990s, the time had come for renovation of two of the district's four schools. Not interested in building new, the historically minded community was determined to create great educational facilities out of its outdated structures.

The plan: Restore the 1931 junior high school to its original splendor and connect it to the high school, located just 400 feet away. When the original bond issue for $7 million failed, architect David Kromm, president of St. Louis-based Kromm, Rikimaru & Johansen, and district representatives decided to do the project in phases in order to save the original building.

"The town voted [for] one tax increase and then there were no tax increases thereafter," Kromm explains. "We built in four separate phases and were able to accomplish the same program for less tax money because we were able to spread it out over several years. The project--which includes a library that serves both buildings, a top level for the middle school and a lower level for the high school--is now complete.

For other districts that are facing the complex save-or-replace decision, Kromm's advice is simple. Understand the potential of what already exists, he says. "Do things in bite-sized chunks and do practical things to preserve the life of the buildings."

Peggy Bresnick Kendler is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Conn., who covers construction topics frequently.

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