Last Bell Rings for
Historic Schools

NEW YORK TIMES, July 5, 2001

SHORTLY after vacation-bound boys and girls streamed into the early afternoon sunlight two weeks ago, a Mayflower van pulled up to the McMillan School in Detroit, and workers unloaded 1,000 cardboard moving boxes. The school, built in 1895, had been ordered closed, but there were rumors of a reprieve. As they left, the students and teachers did not know if they would return in the fall.

They still do not know.

Today the empty boxes sit stacked in empty hallways. "The plans are still to close McMillan," said Cliff Russell, a spokesman for the Detroit school system. The school, which serves prekindergarten through eighth-grade pupils, has been deemed too antiquated to "retrofit for modern technology," he said.

"They're supposed to close it," he continued. "But, internally and secretly, there may be a reconsideration." He paused. "They better make up their mind soon, before school starts."

In Detroit, as in many cities around the country, a battle is under way over the fate of aging neighborhood schools, especially the sturdy brick and stone castles built during a spree of civic construction that began around 1900 and lasted through the Depression.

From Jacksonville, Fla., to New York City to Los Angeles, peeling and pockmarked schools, many in downtown African-American neighborhoods, have become too old for use, school boards say. Without significant sums of money for rehabilitation, they will be lost.

"These are the visual and psychological cornerstones of the community," said Richard Longstreth, an architectural historian who directs the preservation program at George Washington University. "Built with bricks and steel and terra cotta, these are civic statements sited deliberately to be focal points and local landmarks: the exemplars of municipal good taste."

Often, the old buildings are left to languish, like P.S. 109 in East Harlem, 100,000 square feet of boarded-up Schoolhouse Renaissance. Sometimes, they are torn down and the children are transferred to a nearby school, or they are bused to new complexes on the fringes of towns. Preservationists label these vast suburban complexes "sprawl schools" or "cornfield schools."

Elected officials < mayors, governors, school board members < who support budgets for new construction say that their constituents deserve up-to-date schools with advanced laboratories, gleaming gymnasiums and Internet portals. Their critics say that many of these new complexes are disconnected from their communities. It's not just nostalgia: children, they say, have a right to walk to school.

In May, more than 100 children marched outside their yellow brick school in Washington carrying handmade signs: "Save Stevens Elementary" and "Save Our School." The children have reason to worry: the 1868 school and its asphalt playground are worth millions of dollars to eager developers and to a cash-strapped school system. The school, created for the children of newly freed slaves, is the alma mater of Amy Carter and Roberta Flack. It sits near a corner of K and 21st Streets, eight blocks from the White House, on one of the capital's most valuable pieces of real estate.

"This property is worth between $30 and $40 million," said Gloria F. Henderson, Stevens's principal. "There are developers all the time trying to grab it."

Developers also have their sights set on the nearby 1882 Webster School, which sits empty behind a chain-link fence. The National Treasury Employees Union, which bought it from the city in the early 1990's, has gone to court for permission to tear down the school, designated a landmark by the city. The union wants to replace it with an office tower.

A month ago, in northwest Washington, workers were jackhammering the sidewalk in front of the 1949 Moderne-style Kelly Miller Junior High School, its name stylishly carved in concrete across its streamlined entrance. On Monday, the D.C. Preservation League asked the city to save the lettering. Kelly Miller is one of 57 District of Columbia schools recommended for replacement < that is, abandonment or demolition < in the city's latest master plan. (Stevens and Webster, both landmarks, are not on the list; the threats to them come from the pressures of private development.)

Generally, school boards that want to abandon neglected old schools argue that it would cost millions of dollars to bring them up to modern standards often more than it would cost to build a school from the ground up.

Many old schools are coming down in states that mandate construction of new buildings if the costs of renovating old ones exceed a certain percentage, usually 50 to 66 percent, of the costs of new construction.

But preservationists, most outspokenly the National Trust for Historic Preservation, argue that such estimates can be inaccurate. Richard Moe, its president, called the states' rules "totally arbitrary."

"Early estimates can clearly be off," he said. In Kokomo, Ind., consultants hired by the school board in the mid-1990's estimated that it would cost $20 million to $25 million to renovate Kokomo High School, built in 1914. A coalition of parents, teachers and students, along with a newly elected school board member < a former fire inspector acquainted with the structure < questioned the estimate. The board commissioned a second study, which put the cost at $7 million. When the renovation was completed last year, the final cost was $4 million.

In East Cleveland, Ohio, the Kirk Middle School, a Georgian Revival edifice that contains federal Works Progress Administration murals of settlers and wilderness scenes, was scheduled to be torn down on June 15, but the demolition has been delayed, at least for now.

The original consultant estimated that it would cost $9 million to renovate the building in accordance with current standards, as against $12 million for a new school. Citing those figures, proponents of demolition invoked Ohio's so-called two-thirds rule, which they said made the school ineligible for renovation. (Local parents countered that the law allowed waivers for historic buildings.) Preservationists across the country wrote letters to Ohio's governor, Bob Taft, demanding that Kirk be saved. One letter, from Mr. Moe of the National Trust, called the school "an irreplaceable local landmark." Since then, the mayor and others have asked for a second study.

No one knows for sure how many architecturally or historically significant school buildings have been torn down or how many are threatened. But the Education Department estimates there are more than 24,000 schools in the country built before 1950.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers' 2001 report on school conditions, "the largest portion of schools reporting deficient conditions are in central cities serving 50 percent or more minority students." The organization concluded that "after 40 years, a school building begins rapid deterioration; and after 60 years most schools are abandoned."

In New York City, preservationists say they worry about P.S. 109, an 1898 Gothic behemoth on East 99th Street between Second and Third Avenues in Spanish Harlem. Only after neighborhood residents and preservationists formed a committee to save the school < and after wrecking cranes had already knocked a chunk from a dormer < was demolition halted. "But it's only a temporary reprieve," said Alex Herrera, director of technical services at the New York Landmarks Conservancy. "It's being mothballed now, but its fate is unclear. It's still vacant, endangered."

Last week, workers in hard hats were sealing the building; sheets of old black plastic tarpaulin were peeling off the roof, and the ornate facades were latticed with scaffolding. The windows were stoppered with plywood.

"It hurts to see it this way, because people have to move, to go to other places," said Escoe Branner, 82, who sent his four children there and who spent part of a sunny morning last week on a bench looking at workers boarding up the school. He rose to greet Nicolas Parra, 76, who also sent his children there. Mr. Parra remembered that his tenant patrol had met at the school and had held its awards ceremony in the auditorium. "They had beautiful extracurricular activities," he said, with a sigh.

The men were asked if they would rather see the old school rehabilitated or a new school in its place. Mr. Branner laughed.

"If they tore that school down," he said, "they'd probably never put another one in its place."

In Detroit, Larry Goines, 12, is waiting to find out if McMillan will reopen in the fall. His mother, Donna, has vowed that if it closes, she will home-school Larry and his 10 brothers and sisters.

"I feel bad," Larry said on Tuesday. "That school's like a second home to me; the teachers are fine, and the principal is, too. I don't know why they're going to take it away."