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Re-using former school buildings: Saving the sense of place

November 17, 2010

I was reading the Hudson Valley Preservation News blog and came across a post about a former neighborhood school (built in 1915 with additions in 1939 and 1974), now transformed by adaptive reuse into an arts center.  The challenge of what to do with old school buildings faces communities all across the country (previous post here:  “Now that clapping erasers has gone out of style….”

My own neighborhood has several old school buildings of similar early 20th century vintage and the township sees no future for the buildings and wants to tear them down.

These buildings date from the era when schools were in the neighborhood — walking distance from homes and therefore, easily accessed without use of a car.  Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be striving for these days?  Where’s the creativity to see how these buildings (“they don’t build them like that anymore”) could continue to contribute to the community and maintain their value as key contributors to sense of place that help define the neighborhood?

Atticus Lanigan, a land use planner for Orange County, NY, describes the layers of history and ghosts of dreams that can be found in the old high school in Beacon, New York.  Transformed into Beacon Studios, the former school now hosts a number of creative entrepreneurs.  Lanigan describes the threat now facing the site:

It is exactly this type of space that is crucial to the fabric of a community, and perhaps to the region. With rentals as low as $1.18 a square foot, some might call it an incubator where artists and professionals with small budgets can establish a foothold. And indeed, this building is shared by a mix of artists; as well as professionals and budding entrepreneurs, including a baker, woodworkers, Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Green Teen program (matching Dutchess County youth to gardening projects), a seamstress and a recording studio. In fact, the recording studio is now being utilized by popular Americana band, The Felice Brothers. And even though the space is refined there are opportunities for more formal presentation of work. For instance, it has a Premier Studio of over 3000 square feet that can be rented out provided that the renter obtains the proper insurance.

As fertile as this building could be, Beacon Studios is in danger of closing. It is owned by the Beacon City School District which considers the structure to be an extra limb. Although a group of tenants have formed an advocacy group, interfacing with the District from time to time, advice from the State to the District has been to cut itself free of the burden of the building. Thus, the building is currently for sale and the future is unsure. My only hope is that the building continues its other life as inspiration to future generations of artists and entrepreneurs, and continues to teach us inspiring lessons beyond the classrooms of its former use.

via Preservation News.

For more on Upper Dublin schoolbuildings ripe for transformation (I’d like to live in one of them if someone would just study other school-to-condo transformations and get busy), click here.

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