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Now that clapping erasers has gone out of style, what to do with old school buildings?

March 29, 2010

Here in the ‘burbs, my neighborhood has several former school buildings (Fort Washington School) facing possible demolition.   With their high ceilings, large windows, and wonderful interior spaces, they desperately need some creative and savvy developer to come along and fulfill an unmet need for the kind of vintage, loft-like housing that is so easy to find in the city but impossible to locate here in the land of the strip mall.

(A downsizing friend has recently relocated to the Lenthal School and I am green with envy.   I also admire the Champlain School Apartments in Vermont, another great example of a school-to-home repurpose.)

Today’s NYT features a wonderful story on a section of Brooklyn whose school buildings provide a timeline of academic architecture.  Two of the now unused school buildings are looking for new life.  Don’t miss the wonderful comments section with insights from readers with personal connections to the historic Erasmus Hall Academy (1786) and the 1878 primary school.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently featured a profile of a former high school school that was transformed into a new library for the community.  It’s a tremendous example of people with vision making something happen, despite the poor condition of the building and the apparent financial issues connected with the project.  After he had walked past antiquated systems and crumbling concrete windowsills, Birrer asked him if such a project was possible. “I told her, ‘Absolutely,'” Montalbano recalls. “And I drove back to Denver asking myself, ‘Why did I say that?’ If you had seen the building that day, the shape it was in, knowing how little money they had—that was an insane thing to say.” Read more here.

Oh, and how could I forget this magnificent example of how to transform a school into a place you never want to leave (in fact, their ad copy says just that…also that this time it’s okay to fall asleep in school) — I give you the McMenamins’ abra-ca-dabra do-over of two old schools transformed into fun and funky, award-winning hotels:  Kennedy School (1915) and St. Francis School (1936) in Oregon.  Want to meet me for a pint in the lobby before we hit the movie theatre?  (In the right sort of neighborhood, that’s the ideal use for the challenging auditorium/theatre spaces Nick mentions in his comment.)

From their website:

Since its 1915 opening, [the Kennedy Elementary School] has been a beloved fixture of its Northeast Portland neighborhood. McMenamins renovated the once-abandoned scholastic gem and turned it into Portland’s most unique hotel. Here you’ll find 35 comfy guestrooms fashioned from former classrooms (complete with original chalkboards and cloakrooms, private baths and telephones), a restaurant, multiple small bars, a movie theater, soaking pool, gift shop and a brewery (just wait until the principal hears about this!). Extensive original artwork and historical photographs cover the walls, ceilings, doorways and hallways.

What a cozy bedroom and what great windows (check out the chalkboard, perfect for those latenight inspirations you need to jot down so you can go back to sleep!)

FOOTNOTE: I recently noticed a search result landing here; the query was “what does clapping erasers mean?” Obviously, this is one of those lost traditions, the knowledge of which will vanish forever unless someone writes it down. An eraser was a device about the size of a scrub brush, made up of thick slices of felt. Classrooms had large chalkboards, usually green, sometimes black, upon which teachers would write out lessons for students to see using chalk. When the board was filled with writing, the teacher would use the eraser to wipe away the writing so s/he could continue to use the board for the lesson. The felt in the erasers would collect the chalk dust and lose their effectiveness over time. “Clapping erasers” meant taking two erasers outside and smacking them together to produce a cloud of dust and clean out the felt. This was a task generally assigned to a student.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Nick permalink
    March 29, 2010 2:00 pm

    These former school buildings are ripe for conversion for use as housing, specifically senior housing as this demographic seems to appreciate the school ephemera such as chalk boards and clocks. Most have double-loaded corridors which allow the classrooms to be converted into housing units with relative ease.

    Many of these project are utilizing the historic tax credit in conjunction with other incentives, though the design review requirement sometimes scares off developers from using the credit as school buildings tend to have excessively wide corridors and public spaces (gyms, auds) which generally must be retained in historic rehabs.

    • Sabra Smith permalink*
      March 30, 2010 10:29 am

      Nick, thanks for the insights! I would think for senior housing especially, the extra wide corridors would be appealing to allow unencumbered wheelchair cruising and the public spaces could be wonderfully utilized for classes or community space that was either senior-focused or invited the entire neighborhood in for events and functions.

      Your comments reminded me of the fabulous school-to-hotel transformations in Portland so I’ve updated the post. Worth noting that the McMenamins used the auditorium to create a snacktastic movie theatre (now showing Fabulous Mr. Fox)! Wouldn’t work for every building, but it’s a wonderful idea that puts the space back into public use.

  2. Lew permalink
    April 26, 2010 10:50 am

    As the friend living in the Lenthal School I can advocate the use of old schools as residential units. With stone walls and energy efficient windows, our new home blends modern efficiency with inspired spaces. Where else would you find twelve foot ceilings and eight foot windows?

    An important key to any conversion is that municipalities can’t be greedy and ask for a large sum of money for the structure. Most developers know that projects in old buildings take more time and money than new construction and need to feel their efforts may be rewarded with some profit when the project is complete. Removing the up-keep of old buidings from the tax burdon should be ample payment for any municipality.

    • Sabra Smith permalink*
      July 8, 2011 7:05 pm

      As a single mother whose kids enjoy the suburban vibe, I regularly dream of a low-maintenance residence in a one-of-a-kind vintage building (my kids don’t really use the yard we have; it’s a money weed pit). But those seem to be a rarity in the burbs. Philadelphia has its wonderful, highly-desirable, as-seen-on-television lofts in old factory buildings — seems as though the obvious suburban solution would be cool apartments in old school buildings. [Going to look up that Jane Jacobs quote about how thriving neighborhoods need a variety of housing to meet the needs of a variety of populations]

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