Historic Newton and our school buildings

I subscribe to the NewtonParents listserve, which serves as a discussion board for a wide range of school-related issues.  In recent days, the topic of renovation verses demolition/reconstruction of some of our elementary schools has come up.  Questions have been raised about whether Angier, Zervas, Cabot, and Ward schools have historic value, are tasteless eyesores, are physically suitable for renovations, or can be affordably replaced.  The topic drifted into properties that the city calls “historic” and a role that the Historic Commission has played.   I posted my own thoughts, which are largely captured below:  

Regarding tasteless old school buildings, this is, as they say, a matter of taste.  What 50 or 80 year old building could not benefit with a makeover, or at least a nice cleaning up?  Each of these “eyesores” could become the core of an attractive, highly functional, renovation/addition project that would positively reflect the architectural period they were created in.

Every city has buildings that were ready for the wrecking ball, only to be preserved and ultimately honored by later generations.  Faneuil Hall and the Paul Revere House in Boston are two area examples, along with many old warehouse buildings across Fort Point Channel which are now top-rent office spaces.  Newton has the old Sweater Factory on Glen Avenue that the Green Company restored into offices; meanwhile many of our sold-off school buildings live on as attractive housing.  Would you rather a new Avalon Bay alongside of Weeks field, or the handsome brick residence that was derived from the old school?

Renovating old school buildings offers lessons to our children and community about the environmentalism of preservation, offers our taxpayers the potential of significant cost savings, and offers our residents a variety of streetscapes that reflect the broader history of our city rather than just a short moment.

Next, some facts about buildings.  Public assertions were made when a new NNHS was being considered, that we should not throw money at a renovation of the old building since it was nothing more than a “tired” edifice.  Yet consider that buildings are assemblies of structure, enclosure, and operating systems.  The NNHS building structure is as intact and functional today as when built.  The enclosure, or building envelop, needs updating via more, better quality natural daylighting, better glass, and a more energy-efficient skin.  And the operating systems, in particular the HVAC system, need redesign and replacement.  What is important to emphasize is that this building foundation, columns, floor plates, and much of its enclosure are undeteriorated and represent millions and millions of dollars of value as a completely appropriate starting point for a high quality renovation.

I am not trying refight an old battle, but simply want to highlight the gross misrepresentation that many proponents of a new building advanced and ultimately sold to our community.  This did a huge disservice to honest discussion regarding the merits and financial value of renovations.  We should not buy this argument again with our elementary schools.  The building structures and envelops of Angier, Zervas, Cabot, and Ward Schools, at least in part, are suitable for reuse and should be fully and open-mindedly analyzed for possible renovation.   There are so many sound arguments for doing so.

We must look hard at renovations/additions to our school buildings in lieu of total replacement.  Many of our old school buildings have significant useful life left in them.  Let’s take advantage of this, for economic value, environmental responsibility, and out of respect for the history within our built environment.