Written by Elizabeth Rosin
The fate of historic schools is a major preservation concern these days. Shrinking populations and district budgets all too often result in the closure of older school buildings. Standing empty is never good for an older building or for the surrounding community.
Because older schools are so well laid out and solidly built, many find new uses after the end of their educational tenure. It is rare to find a small to mid-size town anymore that does not have a repurposed school building. Less common is to see a school district invest in the renovation of a historic school so that it can continue to function as a school. But, that is happening in Independence, Kansas.
The 1923 Independence Middle School was designed by Chicago architect N.S. Spencer and Sons to meet the highest standards in education at that time. When the building opened, the local newspaper boasted (with just a touch of hyperbole) that the new school was “the best of its kind west of the Mississippi.” Fast forward 88 years, and the building remains full of students. A larger gymnasium was added in 1939, and new windows were installed around 1980. Otherwise, not much has changed, although educators no longer view it as a cutting-edge facility. Some classrooms are too small, others are too big, connections between the original building and the 1939 gym are extremely awkward, access to technology in the classrooms is less than desired, and there is a lot of underutilized space.
Committed to maintaining the building, the school district began exploring state historic tax credits as a vehicle to enhance their available budget. They developed a rehabilitation program that would maintain the building’s significant historic features while updating classrooms for the 21st century.
Meshing preservation standards with the educational program was not that hard. A few minor tweaks to the original renovation plan made the project compliant with the Secretary’s Standards. The school district is approved to receive state tax credits to the tune of 25% of qualified expenditures when construction wraps up. Project highlights will include:
- Preservation of features and fabric that communicate significant aspects of the historic design, especially in public areas like the corridors and auditorium.
- Relocation of interior partitions to adjust the size of individual classrooms. The classrooms will have both new technology-enhanced “teaching walls” and unique, historic terrazzo chalk rails.
- Reconfiguration of the two 1923 gymnasiums to house two levels of music/art and vocational classrooms with the addition of a concrete floor slab.
- Creation of a larger gym floor and activity space in the 1939 gymnasium by removing one set of bleachers.
- Adaptation of the auditorium to house multiple new functions by sensitively partitioning the space while preserving the distinctive historic features of the space.
- Restoration of the building facades by installing new multi-light windows.
The project is about halfway complete. Renovation of the first floor classrooms, the 1923 gymnasiums and the auditorium finished last summer. Portable buildings were installed on the front lawn to house some classrooms so that construction could continue during the school year. New windows started going in after Thanksgiving, and classrooms reopened on the third floor over the winter. Construction is now focused on the second floor and, when basketball season ends, the 1939 gymnasium. When students return to school next August, the Independence Middle School will be ready to educate many future generations of Independence children. The school district will reap the financial benefits of the historic tax credits, and the entire community will be rewarded with the preservation of an important local touchstone.
Elizabeth Rosin is the owner and principal of Rosin Preservation, LLC, in Kansas City, Missouri.
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