Written by Brenna Moloney
Figuring out what to do with empty school buildings is a major preservation conundrum in shrinking cities. The issue isn't one of figuring out what to do with one or two obsolete old buildings once the school district decides to build a new high school somewhere else. The issue goes beyond that and can reach almost epidemic levels. This is true of the two cities I work in for the National Trust and the Michigan Historic Preservation Network.
In Saginaw, Michigan, there are about 11 vacant public schools and many more vacant private school buildings. In Lansing, Michigan, the school board is currently debating which of the city’s two major high schools, Eastern or Sexton, is to be closed. With crushing budget constraints, a burgeoning private charter school market, and shrinking populations, these cities can no longer afford the level of educational infrastructure that they currently have and are looking to rightsize.
Lansing's Art Moderne-style Sexton High School. (Photo: redmudball on Flickr)
In addition, many of these buildings are architectural gems. Built in the early 1940s, Sexton High School is an Art Moderne building with curved yellow brick walls and stunning craft tile details on the interior. Opened in the city center in 1928, Lansing's Collegiate Gothic-style Eastern High School sports a copper cupola and gutters, carved arch windows and a slate roof. Additionally, they are both irreplaceable neighborhood anchors and once one of them goes, there is no telling what the future of the neighborhood may hold.
There is also the additional loss of the public investment with the loss of a school building (i.e., less people buying homes nearby). City residents, school board officials, and leaders are aware of all this, of course, but financial pressure is crushing Michigan’s cities from every direction. It is nothing short of a social disaster and tragedy.
Sexton High School as it appeared (in photos at least) in 1944. (Photo: Wikipedia)
So what, as a preservationist, can be done to mitigate these effects? Before any other measure, I think it is incumbent on community advocates to first and foremost advocate for the use of school buildings as they were intended, as school buildings. If, as in Saginaw, the city has already built up a stock of vacant buildings, preservationists should actively participate in plans for their demolition, sale or re-use.
This means offering to identify and document the most significant of the buildings. It means calling the Superintendent or the Mayor and it means showing up at City Council meetings to voice your concern and offer your help. It always pays, of course, to be solution oriented -- so helping to draft re-use plans, or identifying grants, or building a list of potential contractors for school re-use projects to present to the school board will always gain more traction than a simple objection.
There is no easy answer or tactic for dealing with closure and vacancy of a shrinking city’s schools, libraries, fire stations and other civic buildings. That will depend on the particulars of the community. No doubt there are some schools that may be lost, that cannot be mothballed or turned in to retirement communities or otherwise saved. There are no guarantees against heartbreak in historic preservation. In fact, there is actually a guarantee of it.
In the case of schools, preservationists should be leading the fight to defend them and their place in communities, and to offer proactive solutions to the issues presented because the fight is not just about saving a particular building from the wrecking ball. It is about saving what’s left of our neighborhoods and our cities.
Brenna Moloney is a preservation specialist for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Michigan Historic Preservation Network in Saginaw and Lansing, Michigan. Read her earlier posts on right-sizing.