No, I am not speaking for myself, or the fine university I attend here in Boston, but for the thousands of high school students in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the country whose historic, architecturally significant schools are being torn down and replaced with cookie cutter, strip mall like architecture constructed of cheap materials. One of my favorite things as a student has always been going on class fieldtrips. Visiting sites like Plimoth Plantation, Old Sturbridge Village and the Gilded Age mansions of Newport, Rhode Island sparked an early age interest in architectural history and preservation. I was fortunate to attend a beautiful historic school in Boston which has been adapted to meet the educational needs of the 21st century, in turn serving as a model for other historic schools across the state.
As a professional working in preservation, the demolition of historic schools has posed a tremendous challenge for communities and tax payers all over the country. In Massachusetts, Tim Cahill, the State Treasurer and Chairman of the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) has been imposing upon every tax payer one of the most ludicrous ideas in the state’s fiscal history. Towns like Wellesley and Norwood have all jumped on Cahill’s bandwagon and voted to demolish their historic schools and construct new ones based on the Model School Plan.
Mr. Cahill has made it his lifelong goal to “save” communities money by demolishing their historic schools. Of course, in the long run the costs of maintaining these schools will outweigh the benefits to communities further burdening the tax payer. According to the MSBA, the Model School Plan “effectively adapt[s] and re-use[s] the designs of successful, recently constructed high schools and incorporate[s] sustainable, “green” design elements when possible and will be flexible in educational programming spaces while encouraging community use.” Educational theories constantly change and what were once groundbreaking theories in one generation may be obsolete for the next. But really, is there a need to demolish a school simply because it may programmatically interfere with the needs of students in the 21st century?
If you are wondering how the Model School Plan works, let us consider this scenario: The new and supposedly better school is constructed in the “old” school’s playing fields over a short period of time (usually summer). When the new school is completed, the “old” school is then demolished and either converted to surface parking lot or playing fields.
The Model School Plan has many faults, one of them is that it ignores the possibility of either finding a re-use for the historic school or incorporating new technology to improve the quality of education. Most likely, Mr. Cahill has never heard of the phrase “the greenest building is the one that is already built” coined by Carl Elefante of Quinn Evans Architects and Director of Sustainable Design and a Principal in the Washington, DC office. Preservationists, architects and those concerned with sustainability and architecture live and practice by this mantra and if Mr. Cahill has heard it before. Demolishing a “historic” school or an architecturally significant building to build a “green” one, is not being sustainable.
The success of the new Model School design is also debatable. While schools continue to fall one after the other, like a domino sculpture, studies on the effectiveness of the Model School Plan have yet to surface. Towns have been blindfolded and have voted to adopt Cahill’s absurd ideas without really knowing what they are getting themselves into. Do people really think that demolishing a building is done at no costs to the town, state, country or environment? Adopting the Model School Plan only spells many future problems for our towns and cities, not to mention the deep holes in our tax payer’s pockets.
The schools that have already been built in Massachusetts under the Model School Plan are NOT good models for other schools to follow. These schools are as architecturally uninspiring as a course in economics was to me back in college. The new buildings look like a CVS, Stop and Shop, Wal-Mart or a Target in contrast to the masterpieces that have been demolished or will be demolished in their place.
Shame on Wellesley for voting to demolish their International Style high school designed in 1938 by the internationally acclaimed firm of Perry Dean Shaw and Hepburn and shame on Norwood for voting to demolish their strikingly beautiful Colonial Revival school designed by the town’s leading architect. Massachusetts has already lost several architecturally significant schools including Auburn High School, but can we afford to lose one more?