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Saving old buildings starts with your state of mind

At a recent presentation to the Geneva Historical Society I mentioned in passing my experience helping save an old school from the wrecking ball. At the urging of members, I promised to write about it.

The old Leicester Street School sits at the high point in the village of Perry, in the middle of a residential neighborhood, a block from downtown. Its highly visible cupola is a landmark. Today the top floor of this 100,000 sf, neo-Georgian edifice has 24 light-filled apartments, including ten loft units with mezzanines in the former library. The other apartments retain original oak cubbies, closets and sliding, counter-weighted slate chalkboards. On the main floor, professional office space and a state computer-training lab occupy similarly-appointed former classrooms. Only a gymnatorium (I love that word!) still awaits that magical combination of concept, commitment and cash.

I had moved to Perry just after voters had rejected a proposal to abandon this 3-story, 1906 brick edifice, in favor of a new school on the edge of town. The Board of Education waited the required 90 days to put the identical measure back on the ballot.  In the meantime proponents of the new school made an impassioned case that the original building was unadaptable, unsafe and unworthy of additional tax dollars. Tours were given showing water damage to the foundation, holes in the floor, and tarps in the attic redirecting rainwater from the leaking clay tile roof. At heated public meetings, advocates of saving the old building were asked (rhetorically, I think) if they would stand outside and catch children jumping from the 3rd story windows when the inevitable conflagration came.

At the next vote, the measure to build a new school passed.

The morning after, it was clear that a few other things had happened too: First, the campaign had the unintended side effect of morphing a venerable civic structure into a dangerous, structurally unsound liability, in the public consciousness. Second, no one had given much thought (or allocated any funds) to considering what might be done with it next. The conventional wisdom was to tear it down as soon as the students moved out, and before the vandals moved in.

My first foray into community life was thus to form a “Task Force to Re-use the Leicester Street School.” We made efforts to assure that critics and skeptics – as well as advocates – were part of it. Without a doubt, the most challenging task was changing those perceptions. So I went on the road throughout our great state interviewing, documenting and photographing other school conversions. We shared these sweet success stories at public meetings, juxtaposed with the harsh alternative – a $500,000 demolition price tag (I told you it was a big building).

We compiled condition reports for the building (already completed by the district and concluding the building was sound), and a local photographer lovingly documented the interior and exterior. We made calls to hypothetical tenants and invented uses. We solicited letters of support from every agency known to humankind. Then we organized it all into multi-pocketed folders, called it a “Request for Proposal”, wrapped it in a bow, and sent it out to interested developers across the state.

These efforts succeeded more because they served to change the community’s state of mind, rather than because a particular developer responded. I believe we created a “sense of inevitability” that took on a life of its own. Two or three negotiations with developers fell through and it took two more years before buyers – a local attorney and his wife who had attended the school  – were found and the deal was closed. But by being proactive, the Task Force had time on its side, and built momentum towards re-use. Once the community came to consensus that this old school could become Perry’s greatest asset – or its biggest liability – the pieces were in place.

My firm was fortunate to lead the design team that renovated the building, in which we learned much about the surprising adaptability of such buildings. We even had our office in one of those former classrooms for two years. I miss the high ceilings, abundant natural light, and of course those chalkboards!

As for the gymnatorium? If you have any good ideas, let me know.

Rick Hauser