School Climate & Safety

Razing Objections

By Joetta L. Sack — February 13, 2002 16 min read
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Washington Irving Elementary School is hardly noticeable amid the metallic clutter; it actually could pass for just another warehouse.

The short drive down state Route 41, four lanes of flat concrete trailing off the interstate, leads to a jumble of car lots, fast-food restaurants, dollar stores, and strip malls, with a backdrop of warehouses, factories, and storage tanks. The turn onto Chicago Avenue reveals the nucleus of this industrial town: shuttered businesses and dozens of tired-looking little houses, with layers of dust from the factories and the trucks that rule this road. Washington Irving Elementary School is hardly noticeable amid the metallic clutter; with its tarred Chicago-blond brick and patched steel windows, it actually could pass for just another warehouse.

Only upon a second glance does it show a hint of its remarkable architectural pedigree. Bordering its flat roof is a row of glazed terra-cotta tiles, with intricate brickwork visible despite the soiled facade.

The Chicago-based architect George Grant Elmslie, a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright and a master of Prairie-style architecture, designed the 1937 school building. But soon, Elmslie’s handiwork may be gone. The community, educators, and school board here want to tear the building down and replace it with a modern structure that will meet the needs of their students, requirements that have changed drastically since the school’s construction during the Depression’s later years.

School districts across the country are grappling with whether to renovate existing buildings, or demolish them and build anew. The issue often pits nostalgia and old-time charm against the contemporary necessities and conveniences a new facility can provide.

But historic preservationists and some architects increasingly are arguing that schools can have both. Several groups are urging districts to think again before razing those old structures, and to look at ways aged school facilities can be renovated with, they say, all the amenities of a new school and the grandeur of the old structure.

But it’s a tough sell to many districts, including Hammond, where decision-makers tend to embrace the belief that newer is better.

The Chicago-based architect George Grant Elmslie, a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright and a master of Prairie-style architecture, designed the 1937 school building.

Despite Washington Irving Elementary’s historical significance, Hammond school officials maintain that the facility is so lacking in basic needs—wiring for technology, accessibility for students with disabilities, adequate heating and cooling systems—that it’s best just to start over. They say a new building would lift the spirits of this proud blue-collar town; and besides, they’re tired of unexpected repairs that sometimes cut into the budget for educational services. The 437-student school serves grades K-5.

“We can’t afford to maintain this building in its current state,” says Gary E. Jones, the assistant superintendent of the 13,000-student Hammond district. “We don’t have dollars to barely keep up with emergency repairs.”

Elmslie designed four schools in this area of Indiana, three in Hammond and one in Gary. All but Washington Irving have been leveled in recent years, over the protests of historic preservationists and others.

“It’s not the most glamorous, but it’s the last remaining,” says Brian L. Poland, Hammond’s city planner and one of the few voices here who argue to save the school. “We try to bring [the architectural significance] to everyone’s attention, but a lot of people here don’t care about historic buildings.”

Alarmed that some of the nation’s oldest school buildings are being boarded up or flattened, some national preservation and education groups are weighing in on the issue.

In June 2000, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a private nonprofit group, added historic neighborhood schools to its annual “most endangered” list of vintage properties and issued a report calling for the schools’ preservation.

This past December, the National Park Service and the Council of Educational Facility Planners International announced a new cooperative agreement to save such schools. “Historic neighborhood schools have touched the lives of millions of Americans, yet these treasured icons and community institutions are being abandoned, demolished, and replaced at an alarming rate,” it says.

Despite Washington Irving Elementary's historical significance, Hammond school officials maintain that the facility is so lacking in basic needs that it's best just to start over.

Some states are modifying school finance regulations to allow more funding to renovate old facilities and lift restrictions that discourage the practice. For instance, the Maine legislature established a renovation fund in 1997 to help districts pay for restoring community landmarks. Also in 1997, the Vermont legislature adopted a policy encouraging districts to preserve historic school buildings.

And Maryland has adopted a “Smart Growth” policy, intended to combat suburban sprawl by enticing people to stay in or move to urban core areas, that funnels most state school construction funding toward renovations.

But when districts have the option, they tend to favor new buildings on large plots of land, and thus gravitate to outlying areas where land is cheaper and more readily available than in the midst of established neighborhoods. One-level elementary schools have been the trend, as many school leaders worry that stairs can be dangerous; old schools often have stairs that violate fire codes because they are too steep or not enclosed. Sprawling high school campuses, with large parking lots and athletic fields, have become the norm.

Many districts are just beginning to realize the potential of old buildings, says Barbara C. Worth, a spokeswoman for the Council of Educational Facility Planners International. The group, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., helps districts plan effective facilities.

In working with district officials to help them better evaluate their needs, the council’s experts have found that many times, restoration is more cost-effective than new construction, Worth says. Sometimes new construction carries hidden costs, such as land acquisition, construction of utility lines, and demolition of the old building, that districts do not factor into the decision to go with a new building, she says.

Further, a decades-old school building can instill a sense of culture and community history that fresh, new buildings just cannot provide. Worth says: “A brand-new school that looks like any other school doesn’t have that identity.”

Don Swofford, a Charlottesville, Va.-based architect who is a member of the American Institute of Architects’ historic-preservation committee, says school officials are often swayed by contractors, architects, and others who stand to profit from new construction.

“If you look at the people who are the main proponents behind changes in schools, they are people who need enormous cash flow,” he says.

But proponents of state and federal funding for school construction argue that many American school buildings are past due for replacement. Such buildings have an ideal life span of about 40 years, they say. That means the bumper crop of 1950s and ‘60s buildings—quickly constructed of inexpensive materials to house the baby boom students—is showing its age.

So then, what qualifies a school facility as “historic,” rather than just “old”? What, in other words, is worth saving?

Preservationists say the answer depends on several factors: age, of course, but also the design, the architectural flourishes, the location, subsequent additions and renovations, and the building’s significance within the community.

One of those preservationists, Todd Zeiger, spends most of his days trying to persuade northern Indiana communities to keep the wrecking balls away from landmark buildings that he says are integral to a community’s landscape and culture. As the director of the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana’s regional office in South Bend, Ind., he’s fought recently to save a number of schools from such a fate—with mixed results.

Historic preservation often depends on community members’ exposure to other places, according to Zeiger. People who fight to save a building are usually the newcomers to an area, or ones who grew up in the area, left for a while, and moved back. Surprisingly, the people who are least interested tend to have lived in the community all their lives, Zeiger says.

The historic-preservation community has had an especially hard time in northern Indiana’s industrial regions, he says. Despite Hammond’s proximity to Chicago, with its reputation for great architecture, preservation buffs really have not bothered to get involved in the Washington Irving case, saying they’ve probably already lost the battle.

Interest is growing, however, in architect Elmslie’s work because of his association with Wright, by many people’s lights the pre-eminent American architect of the 20th century. As a member of the Prairie School, Elmslie was part of a group of young architects who imitated Wright’s style, known for its horizontal lines, abstract tile designs, and use of nontraditional materials. In recent years, the style has enjoyed resurgence in popularity among architects and preservationists. They see it as an integral part of American culture and a major influence on subsequent architectural designs.

School districts across the country are grappling with whether to renovate existing buildings, or demolish them and build anew.

Hammond’s working-class residents, though, have much more pressing concerns. For years, the region’s economy has been in a slump, with its steel mills and other industries vulnerable to even the slightest economic downturns. “When the economy sneezes, we get pneumonia,” says Jones, the assistant superintendent.

Jones and the teachers are certainly not ignorant of Washington Irving Elementary School’s history. Many proud alumni still live in the area and have recorded the school’s lore. That legacy predates the building—the Elmslie structure replaced a 1905 facility.

Lorraine Kobe, who has taught at Irving for 32 years, wants a larger room for her kindergarten class. Even though she has a big storage room, large windows, and a door that opens onto a concrete courtyard, the space is drafty and gloomy during the notoriously long and harsh winters here off the south end of Lake Michigan. Furthermore, the room cannot accommodate the technology that Kobe believes would greatly benefit her students. And she worries that her school has been left behind while other, newer schools have gotten computers and other updates.

“We deserve a new school, too,” Kobe says. “I would have very mixed emotions to see a wrecking ball hit the building, but I think, ‘I would love to design a classroom.’ That’s something I’ve dreamed about since college.”

As happened when Hammond’s other Elmslie buildings were demolished, Jones vows that anything deemed architecturally significant will be salvaged and incorporated into the new school. He says that doing so will still provide the new building a sense of history, and argues that the rest of the old building really is not worth salvaging.

Renovating an old building, Jones says, is “like taking a Model T and putting chrome on it. But it’s still a Model T.”

Zeiger, the landmarks foundation’s director, bristles at such remarks.

“What makes a building historic is not the terra cotta. It’s the whole building, the architect that designed it, and the design integrity of the building,” he says. As for slapping artifacts onto a new structure, says Zeiger, “I would almost rather that didn’t happen, because it’s such an affront to the building.”

Walking through the hallways, though, Jones is hard-pressed to name anything other than the outside terra-cotta tile that seems worthy of salvage. Certainly not the greenish-yellowish-brown carpet that covers the hallways, or the dark and seemingly perilous locker-room showers. Not the ill- fitted doors that leak strong gusts of wind, or the gym floor, badly chipped and patched because of damage from the persistently leaking roof. In fact, many of the classrooms have typical cinderblock walls and plain linoleum floors, which were added to the original Elmslie building in the 1960s.

In the warm months, teachers must open windows to fight the heat, then strain to be heard over the constant rumble of the nearby trains and trucks on Chicago Avenue. In the winter, it’s a struggle just to stay warm.

“If you put your hand within two feet of [a window], you can get frostbite,” Jones says.

But as bad as Washington Irving’s problems might appear, there is no reason a structurally sound school cannot be refurbished, says architect John E. Arndt, usually, he says at a lesser cost than rebuilding. His firm, Hebard and Hebard, in South Bend, Ind., has revamped old school facilities and built new ones, and he has seen many instances where, he contends, old construction is more solid and will last longer than brand-new schools. Often, school boards are so restricted in budget when building new facilities that they cannot afford the best-quality construction materials, as they could in the earlier 20th century.

A decades-old school building can instill a sense of culture and community history that fresh, new buildings just cannot provide.

“When I hear administrators say a building is antiquated, that means they have an architect that doesn’t have vision,"adds Zeiger of the Historic Landmarks Foundation. “That’s like saying, ‘My bathroom is outdated—I’ll have to tear down the house.’”

South Bend is best known as the home of the University of Notre Dame, one of the nation’s premier campuses architecturally. The 22,000-student district in South Bend has both razed some schools and renovated others in recent months—and true to preservationists’ theories, the upper-class urban neighborhoods have chosen to renovate, while the lower-income urban communities chose new construction.

One current project is the complete refurbishing of a neighborhood cornerstone in South Bend. James Madison Elementary School’s freshly washed red brick, new Tudor-style windows, and stone arches molded from original patterns tie in perfectly with the Colonial- style and Victorian homes in its downtown neighborhood. The community chose to save the old building because it was such a presence, and it could be rehabbed and expanded for less cost than a brand-new space.

Originally, Madison Elementary had leaky windows, just two electrical outlets in each classroom, and rooms that were either way too small or too large for modern needs, says Principal James E. Bankowski.

Now, the school boasts a contemporary vaulted ceiling in its foyer, a large front office, and new restrooms with white tiles that gleam even through the construction dust. Soon, most classrooms will be retooled to a uniform size, will have modern electrical fixtures, and be accessible for people with physical disabilities. Bankowski shows off a new, second-floor addition that will house computer labs, a new media center, and new classrooms.

Across town, in another well-heeled neighborhood of South Bend, construction crews are working to refurbish Adams High School, a 1940s Gothic-style campus that resembles nearby Notre Dame.

At Adams, Principal Patrick J. Casey points out the 2-foot-thick walls that were revealed by classroom renovations. “This was built as a fortress,” he says.

But in two other established neighborhoods in South Bend, residents and school officials chose to replace old buildings.

In the case of Nuner Elementary School, the district spent years in an emotional battle with preservationists and some community members who believed the mid-1920s building should have been renovated, or at least sold and used for another purpose. The district wanted to provide residents of the surrounding working-class community with green space for a community park, Superintendent Joan M. Raymond says.

In many cases, Raymond says, old buildings can and should be renovated and designated as historic. But ultimately, she says, the condition of the building and needs of the school should be the deciding factors.

“There’s clearly a lack of understanding and communication in relation to the needs and functioning of a building,” she says. "[Preservationists’] primary concern is the exterior of the building; what goes on inside is the prerogative of the owner.”

The old Nuner School was simply too outmoded and rundown to renovate, Raymond says. Zeiger disagrees.

Plans to demolish the school led to a court battle and an order protecting the building, as preservationists sought to secure historic status. Ultimately, their efforts failed, and the building was demolished.

If Indiana’s Nuner and Washington Irving School Buildings were in Chicago instead, they would likely be in the midst of renovations.

The city has a worldwide reputation for its architecture. Following the great fire in 1871, young architects flocked to rebuild the city, using what they saw as an opportunity to leave their mark on a clean slate.

As its neighborhoods took shape over those early, post-conflagration years, architects deliberately designed schools to be the second-tallest structures, after churches, says architect and historic preservationist Bill Latoza. In part, he says, that was to impress upon the city’s large immigrant populations the importance of religion and education in American life.

If you look at the people who are the main proponents behind changes in schools, they are people who need enormous cash flow.

Today, most of those schools still tower over the rowhouses and modest dwellings outside the downtown area. As part of an effort to shore up the city’s often-criticized education system, the 431,000-student district is spending $2.5 billion to upgrade and renovate most of its facilities, from the century-old Victorian fortresses to the brightly colored, modern structures of more recent decades.

One of those older buildings was the 85-year-old Drake School, which sits amid vacant lots and unoccupied housing projects in a desolate southeast Chicago neighborhood. The school itself was abandoned for 25 years before the district school board decided to reopen it in 1998. Latoza and his contractors had only three months to completely redo the graffiti-covered structure, including installing new heating and cooling systems, replacing enormous windows, and adding a new cafeteria and library, as well as computer and science labs. Although the cafeteria had to be housed in a narrow basement room, the rest of the renovation resulted in a grand facility.

“What you really have here is a brand-new school in an 85-year-old body,” Latoza says as he highlights the school’s restored iron staircase and vintage magnesite floors, a material rarely seen in new construction.

It’s cost the district about $130 per square foot to overhaul its old schools, compared with about $155 a square foot to build a no-frills new structure on the same site, he says.

Latoza and his associates also have meticulously restored the Victorian facade of an 1889 facility, the Yates School, in the mostly Hispanic Humboldt Park neighborhood west of downtown Chicago. That structure was a challenge because of its odd- size transom windows, badly damaged terra-cotta sculptures, and ornate marble and ironwork. This spring, workers will overhaul the school’s interior.

When special education teacher Katie McConnell first interviewed for a job there, she says she was frightened by its ominous appearance: the peeling paint, boarded-up windows, and brick blackened by years of neglect. But she was drawn to its large, airy classrooms with high ceilings, large windows, and wood floors and trim, even though most of her colleagues chose smaller classrooms in a newer addition.

Now, she’s anxiously waiting for her first-floor room to be refurbished, and Latoza assures her she will have Internet access and all the modern amenities of a brand-new school.

For McConnell, it’s well worth the wait.

“The new schools tend to feel sterile,” she says. “I just love the old- school look.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Razing Objections


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