Written by Sonjia Weinstein

The front of South Elementary (Photo: Sonjia Weinstein)

Back in 1936, first grader Harvey Brannon sat on the windowsill of Lander, Wyoming’s one room schoolhouse during lunchtime and watched the new Lander Grade School being built, brick by brick. Watching the artistry and pride with which Lander Grade School was constructed inspired Harvey to become a union bricklayer for 30 years of his adult life. Now, 75 years later, Harvey may witness the demolition of that school building, which is now called South Elementary School. On May 27, South Elementary is scheduled to close its doors - not just for the summer - but forever. Demolition is scheduled to begin at the end of May.

South Elementary is a rare example of Art Deco architecture in Fremont County. The original structure was completed in 1937 as part of the Public Works Administration, a program designed to create employment opportunities during the Great Depression. South Elementary is one of only three New Deal schools remaining in Wyoming. Distinctive features include mosaic brickwork of children reading and terra cotta bas-relief sculptures on the facade. The Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office has declared that South Elementary is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

One of the terra cotta bas-relief sculptures on the facade (Phot: Sonjia Weinstein)

In 2003, the Wyoming School Facilities Commission (SFC), the state agency in charge of ensuring that communities across the state are provided equal resources for educational facilities, declared that North Elementary and South Elementary in Lander needed to be replaced. At the time a cost benefit analysis system used by the SFC determined that the cost to renovate the schools was more than 60% of the cost to build new, which provided reason for the schools to be replaced.

Two years later, the local school board voted to reconfigure its schools, combining the three small elementary schools into a K-3 school, a 4th-5th grade school and moving 6th grade into middle school. As part of this decision, it was determined that South Elementary would be demolished to reuse the site for a new K-3 school. People within the community immediately raised concerns for the historic value of South Elementary, but were told that the SFC would not pay for renovation. Since then, the SFC has changed its policies, purportedly taking historic value into account in the current matrix system.

Distinctive mosaic brickwork shows children reading. (Photo: Sonjia Weinstein)

Over the past year, efforts to save South Elementary intensified and culminated with a petition to the school board to support actions to preserve the original 1937 portion of the building. More than 450 community members, including Harvey Brannon, signed the petition and submitted it to the school board in November 2010. And a citizen group called Save South Elementary was created.

Despite this show of public support, the school board voted unanimously to proceed with plans to demolish South Elementary. They refused to allow a condition assessment and rehabilitation cost estimate of the original 1937 structure even though the study could have been done at little to no cost to the school district through grant funding. The school board based the decision to continue with demolition on the 2005 decision to reconfigure schools, without regard to changes in the SFC policy or the concerns of the community for the historic value of the 1937 New Deal school.

Although the school board and superintendent are set on their demolition decision, a demolition permit has yet to be issued and SFC funds yet to be allocated. There is still time to reach out to the SFC and City of Lander asking that a study be conducted on the feasibility of preserving and using the original 1937 South Elementary School. Please join Save South Elementary in speaking out for preservation of this part of our nation’s history by signing our petition.

Wyoming’s Historic Schools have been nominated as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Places in 2011. South Elementary School was part of the impetus for this nomination. The 2011 11 Most Endangered List will be announced on June 15. See the National Trust’s Historic Neighborhood Schools Initiative website for tips and information about protecting these important community assets.

Sonjia Weinstein lives in Lander, Wyoming and leads the advocacy efforts of Save South Elementary.

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A Modernist Masterpiece at Grave Risk in New Orleans

Posted on: May 10th, 2011 by National Trust for Historic Preservation


Written by Brad Vogel

Phillis Wheatley Elementary is emblematic of a regional modernism seen in New Orleans. The hyper-cantilevered, elevated structure served the functional purpose of providing shaded place space for school children. Despite outcry from supporters, the building is in imminent danger of demolition. (Photo: Brad Vogel)

Phillis Wheatley Elementary is no stranger to the improbable. Designed by New Orleans architect Charles Colbert and built in 1954, the elevated steel truss school building cantilevers crazily out from concrete piers, hovering in symmetrical balance like an angular modernist cloud. Its form seems untenable at first glance. And in a city renowned for its eighteenth and nineteenth century architecture, it’s a rather unlikely building amidst a thicket of shotgun houses and creole cottages.

Unfortunately, the building’s continued existence as a striking example of American mid-century modernism is looking increasingly improbable. The Recovery School District (RSD) set up by the State of Louisiana to operate many of New Orleans’ schools, has issued requests for demolition proposals for Phillis Wheatley. All this comes despite a Section 106 process and the involvement of various organizations, including the World Monuments Fund. While some racial and neighborhood issues have contributed in part to the current status quo, the RSD’s refusal to consider meaningful alternatives and the funding restrictions that accompany a $1.8 billion FEMA settlement are the real reasons that the iconic school is still headed toward demolition this summer.

Supporters of Phillis Wheatley Elementary join in a "Hands Around Wheatley" event on April 17, 2011 in a last ditch effort to save the 1954 modernist school building. Among those joining in the event were Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc, an actor in HBO's Treme. (Photo: John Stubbs / World Monuments Fund)

New Orleans has already lost several of its most high-profile modernist schools since 2005, and more, like Wheatley, remain in imminent risk of demolition.

But even after the functional death sentence, it’s clear that Wheatley, named for a colonial-era African American poet, is not dead yet. A group of fervent supporters, including former students, modernism enthusiasts, and local architects has refused to give up. On April 17, supporters held a “Hands Around Wheatley” event to raise awareness and stand up for the building. Leading the group were Wheatley alumna and community activist Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc (familiar to some as a character in HBO’s Treme) and Francine Stock, who blogs at REGIONAL MODERNISM :: THE NEW ORLEANS ARCHIVES. It was clear from the turnout and the words spoken at the event that Phillis Wheatley Elementary, as a place, matters.

Over 1,500 people have signed a petition to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu since April calling on him to intervene to halt the unnecessary demolition of the school building located in the Treme neighborhood. You can sign here.

As Montana-LeBlanc noted, “This structure can be renovated, repaired and returned to a school facility to teach the children in the neighborhood.” And as John Stubbs with the World Monuments Fund made clear, “If the Wheatley school is lost through demolition, it will be the 1st site on our World Monuments Watch List that died in our hands.” Here in New Orleans, we’re hoping the improbable happens - that the wrecking ball can be avoided.

To continue to follow the story, follow @docomomo_nola on Twitter. The National’s Trust’s Christine Madrid-French also covers mid-century modern preservation issues @trustmodern.

Brad Vogel is the Ed Majrkzak Historic Preservation Fellow in the New Orleans Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Struggling to Save Historic Schools in Washington State

Posted on: April 25th, 2011 by Guest Writer


Written by Chris Moore

The Moran School on Bainbridge Island in Washington. (Photo: Washington Trust for Historic Preservation)

The Moran School on Bainbridge Island in Washington. (Photo: Washington Trust for Historic Preservation)

Preservationists have been grappling with the issue of historic schools since the genesis of the movement to save old buildings. And the situation in Washington is no different.

Over the past decade, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation has worked to raise awareness about the difficulties facing historic schools. Prompted in part by the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s inclusion of historic neighborhood schools in its 2000 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, in 2002 the Washington Trust commissioned a study to examine the status of historic schools statewide. This study provided an overview of historic schools that remain in use, those that have been modernized, cases where schools have been successfully adapted for new uses, and identified historic schools that are endangered or have already been lost to demolition.

In the nearly 10 years that have passed following this study, much has happened across the state. For example, state formulas for funding school construction have been re-examined. Previously, local districts could access a higher percentage of state matching funds when new construction was involved, creating a disincentive to rehabilitate aging facilities. This funding disparity has since been corrected.

In our cities, we are seeing concerted efforts to modernize historic schools, enabling them to meet the needs of students in the 21st century while retaining historic character-defining features. In Seattle, bond measures for school improvements include full consideration of a school’s historic significance and the district has successfully upgraded many historic buildings, outfitting each with the latest educational technology. Due in large part to the work of local preservationists, the Spokane School District is now in the habit of favoring upgrades to existing historic schools over new school construction, a practice enabling several schools to boast of providing continuous instruction in a single facility for nearly a century.

The City of Tacoma also embraces school rehabilitation. As part of the school’s centennial celebration, the district invested over $100M to rehabilitate Stadium High School. In addition to meticulously preserving the chateau-style exterior and original shell of the building, new athletic, fine and performing art facilities were compatibly incorporated to provide students with the best of all worlds.

Following on the success of Stadium High, the city’s preservation office, local advocates, including the preservation group Historic Tacoma, and others supported the school district in an effort to identify and highlight additional historically significant school buildings. The district hired a consultant to study the issue, which resulted in six additional schools being added to Tacoma’s local register of historic places.

Despite these successes, the fact remains that not all schools are able to remain in traditional use. In these instances, it’s important to be flexible. In an effort to save their historic schoolhouse, the residents of Five Mile Prairie, a rural community in northern Spokane County, envisioned a use that was compatible with the historic function of the school while offering the opportunity to highlight the area’s history.

Partnering with the local school district, advocates successfully supported passage of a bond issue in 2005. The result: the foyer of the Five Mile Schoolhouse is home to a permanent exhibit depicting community life on the prairie while the building houses the Mead Education Parent Partnership (MEPP), an effort of the school district to provide a ‘homeroom’ of sorts for the area’s home-schooled student population.

Trafton Elementary School in Washington's Arlington School District. (Photo: Washington Trust for Historic Preservation)

Trafton Elementary School in Washington's Arlington School District. (Photo: Washington Trust for Historic Preservation)

There are, of course, ongoing challenges to find new uses for historic schools. For reasons of school consolidation, last year the Arlington School District voted to close the doors of Trafton Elementary School. Listed in the National Register, Trafton has been in use since 1912, although a school has operated on the site since 1888. The district plans to retain possession of the school and hopes to rent it out for other community uses, yet the building remains unused since its closure last year.

The Hartline School in eastern Washington faces a similar dilemma. Situated amid acres of wheat with a skyline of grain elevators, the school closed its doors in 2008, forcing students to attend the neighboring high school over 20 miles away. With demolition a real possibility, local advocates and Hartline alum formed the Hartline School Preservation Association (HSPA) and lobbied Grant County Port District #5 to purchase the building. Successful in their bid, the port took ownership last year and is working closely with HSPA on a plan for future use.

Of course, not all advocacy campaigns end well. The Moran School on Bainbridge Island offered an early preparatory school on the shores of Puget Sound. Around 1918, an impressive dormitory structure containing a ground floor theater was constructed to house the burgeoning student population. But by the 1960s, the campus converted to use as a retirement community, and the dormitory went unused—save for storage. Faced with severe maintenance issues, the owners sought to demolish the school building, prompting the Washington Trust to include the structure in our 2010 list of Most Endangered Historic Properties.

In cooperation with the owner and the local preservation commission, the organization identified a potential buyer with a plan for reuse. Unfortunately, purchase and sale negotiations broke down and the owners have reverted to their initial demolition plans. Discussions for mitigation are currently taking place.

So whether the sticking point is increasing (or, in many cases, decreasing) class sizes, school consolidation, implementing new technologies, aging infrastructure, or state policies that favor new construction over rehabilitation, historic schools in Washington face uphill challenges (and yes, that’s uphill both ways – walking to school and the return trip home!).

Chris Moore serves as the field director for the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation.

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The Best Prize of All: Healthy, Sustainable Communities

Posted on: April 12th, 2011 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 1 Comment


Written by Renee Kuhlman

Walkable schools give kids the opportunity to be more physically active.

Have you ever won a prize?

Well, yours truly hadn’t...until last week. That’s when I got the news that my video (see above!) from the Active Living Research Conference was chosen as the winner in a contest among attendees! I’m so excited by the milestone that I want to share it – and the reasons I was in San Diego – with you.

Like me, I’m assuming that you’ve fallen in love with one – or perhaps many – historic neighborhoods, with their lovely tree-lined streets, interconnected blocks, and great architectural details on multi-storied buildings. While we preservationists appreciate this type of environment for its intimacy and beauty, others appreciate how healthy these types of built environments can be – walkable places where you can get your recommended daily dose of exercise while simply going about your everyday business.

Understanding the relationship between the built environment and our health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation created Active Living Research. This national program helps prevent childhood obesity by supporting research on the policy and environments that contribute to active living for children and their families. So how did I – an admitted policy wonk and preservationist – end up at the group's conference?

The National Trust for Historic Preservation received a grant from Active Living Research to collaborate with Dr. David Salvesen from the University of North Carolina’s Institute for the Environment. Together, we are studying the factors that influence why some states have changed their acreage standards for schools, as well as the impact of those changes on the size of sites. We’re hoping that by combining our strengths of research and dissemination, we'll encourage the preservation and development of walkable schools, which would give more kids the opportunity to be physically active.

In addition to learning about other “active living” research, I made a presentation to my fellow Active Living Research grantees about translating research into state-level policy change. One example I shared was from New Hampshire, where National Trust advisor Senator Martha Fuller-Clark led a campaign to increase the planning coordination around school siting decisions. Under state regulations, school districts only had to give local governments notice about the location of a new school 30 days prior to the start of construction. In 2008, she introduced a bill that would have required a more inclusive planning process. Sadly, it failed to get out of committee.

Meanwhile, the Preservation Alliance of New Hampshire received a $6,000 sub-grant and technical assistance from the National Trust through the Helping Johnny Walk to School Project. Through this project, we have hosted monthly calls with individual researchers (five of whom had received Active Living Research grants) to share findings. Armed with new information, the Preservation Alliance of New Hampshire brought together legislators, officials from the Department of Education, and those interested in public health, transportation, sustainable land use, and education. As a result of this convergence of interests, New Hampshire’s Climate Action Plan – the plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – recommends the renovation of existing schools and better planning coordination.

Additionally, the New Hampshire legislature passed SB 59, which requires school districts to cooperate more closely with municipal officials and to encourage more public participation in the planning process before receiving state dollars. This new law will lead not only to more school renovations, but a more thoughtful and inclusive planning process.

This is just one instance where Active Living Research has helped change policy at the state-level. I’m sure it will not be the last. After all, isn’t that the real “prize” we’re all after – healthy, sustainable communities for everyone?

Renee Kuhlman directs the Helping Johnny Walk to School: Sustaining Communities Project for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Saving Criglersville School

Posted on: March 29th, 2011 by Guest Writer


Susan Apel regularly takes her four children to play on the grounds of the former Criglersville Elementary School in Madison, Virginia. Recently, her kids were upset at the vandalism done to the 1940s school and wanted to “do something about it.” Surfing the Internet, she came across the National Trust’s This Place Matters campaign. Days later, the Madison Eagle featured a story about their efforts to show that “this place still matters.” This is her story…

By Susan Apel

Supporters of the old Criglerville gather to show that "This Place Matters" to their community. Photo: Don Richeson, Madison Eagle

Sitting at the bottom of the Blue Ridge Mountains and facing the Robinson River, Criglersville Elementary School has been a vital part of our community from when the original school was built on this location in the 1920's until the most recent school building closed in June 2003. That’s when the school board deemed the property surplus and turned it over to the county.

While a few ideas were entertained about using the building as a community center … a satellite building for the local fire and rescue … and an artists' center … these ideas lost momentum due to budget constraints and lack of county administration support.

When the property was turned over to the county and no longer used as a school, it lost its "grandfather clause" for the well and septic. Now the building will have to be brought up to current building codes in order to be used by the public.

No power … no water … broken windows … one upper, one lower elementary playground …  a United States map on the asphalt behind the school … today the school looks deserted, abandoned, almost as if something tragic occurred.

Yet, the building beckons to you. It's as if you can still hear the children singing and enjoying their Friday "hoot-a-nannies." You can remember the parking lot and field full of cars for the Criglersville School Harvest Supper. You can hear the laughter from the parent-teacher skits that were put on in the auditorium for the community. This building still breathes life, hope,  and unity to all who come.

Volunteers clean up at the site of the former Criglersville Elementary School on March 26, 2011. Photo: Don Richeson, Madison Eagle

In spite of the physical condition of the building, I feel a sense of hope and pride in the ideas the building represents: the joy and delight of childhood, neighbors helping neighbors, a time when life was simple and the center of the community was the school.

From the grounds, I look up and see the Blue Ridge Mountains. I look to the left and I see the neighbor's basset hound coming to say hello through the fence. I stop and give the dog a gentle pat on the head and a good morning. I ask if she misses the children who used to play here. I look to my right and I see calves munching grass with their mothers close by.

The question remains -- what will become of Criglersville Elementary School? A group of concerned citizens in Madison, Virginia hope the future for Criglersville Elementary School will be bright.

We are working on several ideas to propose to the local Board of Supervisors: a community center and park, new location for the Boys and Girls Club, and an artists' center. The two biggest challenges facing Criglersville Elementary School are 1) financial resources and 2) local government approval of this endeavor.

We are meeting with experts in the near future who can give us detailed information on what needs to be done with the building, projected expenses, and possible financial resources. Our community clean-up day to work on the outside of the school was a success!

We go boldly forward trusting the future for Criglersville Elementary School will be bright and full of promise. However, we are in the infant stages of this process. Any and all advice from others who have tried to find alternative uses for their school is much appreciated!

Susan Apel  is spearheading the effort to encourage reuse of the Criglersville School and hopes to receive ideas and suggestions from others who have found alternative uses for their former schools.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

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