Preservation Round-Up: We Heart Historic Schools Edition

Posted on: December 27th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 3 Comments


Written by Renee Khulman    

The 1930 Schuylkill School, listed on Pennsylvania's at-risk list, is scheduled to be demolished for a parking lot this month. (Photo: Preservation Pennsylvania)

Happy Monday, Nation! Here's your Preservation Round-Up, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s twice-weekly digest of preservation tidbits from around the country. Today we're going to do things a little bit different; instead of serving up a smattering of news and notes from here and there, we're going to get all retrospective and take a look back at 2010 through the lens of one of our favorite issues -- historic schools.    

With just a few days left until we wear funny hats and clank glasses, year-end lists are running rampant. You know what I'm talking about -- most shocking celebrity moments, biggest holiday gift items, world's highest earners. Maybe you've even started making some lists of your own. Resolutions for 2011? Things to re-gift next holiday season?    

Anyway, all of this list-making got me thinking about about how my preservation crush fared in 2010. So, without further adieu, here's a round-up of news -- and yes, some lists -- that you should know about if you also heart community-centered schools.    

This year, Colorado Preservation, Inc. combed the Centennial State to inventory schools that were at least 50 years old and created Our Living Legacy, a film featuring six of the schools that have been renovated. The Tacoma (Washington) Public Schools got a similar list when it hired an architectural historian to survey its school buildings two years ago. As a result, the city council listed six more historic schools on the Tacoma Register of Historic Places this month. Preservationists believe the school district to be a national model, “acknowledging not only the architectural and cultural significance of these structures, but also that these places matter deeply to our community.” This is a key point because the school system owns one of the largest collections of significant historic buildings in the city.   

Some folks also made lists of abandoned schools. Kyle Munson of The Des Moines Register maintains a list of “prairie castles,” former brick school buildings that have been given a new life as something other than a school. Old Ohio Schools posts “knock-your-socks-off” images of now-demolished schools to encourage more thoughtful decision making. The Alliance for Historic Wyoming lists schools that have been demolished and describes the short-sighted policies behind their abandonment.     

Historic Tacoma encouraged the local school district to identify and list their historic school buildings on the city's register of places important to their community. (Photo: Historic Tacoma)

When Preservation Pennsylvania released its annual at-risk list last week, the organization listed the 1930 Schuylkill School in Schuykill Township. Ironically, the school’s thick stone walls represented “permanence” to the school’s philanthropist, Frank B. Foster. For the past eight years, the Friends of Schuylkill School have urged preservation, but sadly demo is scheduled to begin this month to make way for a new parking lot.    

Preservation Dallas had a similar idea, but their most endangered list includes all of the historic buildings owned by the Dallas Independent School District. The organization called attention to the need for catching up with deferred maintenance and discouraged demolition of the city’s “venerable and beloved schools.” Preservation Dallas points to the district’s recent effort to update the Booker T. Washington High School as a model for combining historic and new educational facilities elsewhere in the district.    

In Detroit, the Historic Designation Advisory Board spent $33,000 surveying schools built before 1960. This summer, the Michigan Historic Review Board approved a list of 88 nominations to the National Register of Historic Places. Now that’s a list! Preservationists sought this listing as a way to encourage reuse of these historic buildings instead of demolishing the community anchorsPreservation Wayne makes the point that if these buildings were listed, the new owners could take advantage of tax incentives for rehabilitation and that the repurposed buildings could continue to serve their community.    

Now, does all of this have you inspired to save some schools in 2011? Check out this literature review of relevant research we recently posted here at PreservationNation. It summarizes some of the best thinking out there and offers some really compelling points to ponder. Also, check out our list of recommendations for encouraging more community-centered schools.    

With that, enjoy your Monday! Got any tips, news, or otherwise preservation-related fluff? We’d love to include it in the next round-up. Send us your links on Twitter and Facebook, and maybe you’ll see it here next week!    

Renee Kuhlman directs the Helping Johnny Walk to School: Sustaining Communities through Smart Policy program. This project, undertaken through a cooperative agreement with the US Environmental Protection Agency, helps states encourage more community-centered schools through both policy and practice. She can be reached at

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.

Care to Comment? Weigh in on New Draft Federal Guidelines for Siting Schools

Posted on: December 13th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation


Written by Renee Kuhlman

In their draft school siting guidelines, the EPA encourages the continued use of community-centered schools, like this 1937 South Elementary School in Lander, Wyo., because they offer multiple travel options like biking and walking and their central location means fewer Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMTs).

We need your help to ring in the New Year with new … federal guidelines?

Yes, and there’s no time to waste.

In November, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a draft of the voluntary federal guidelines for siting schools. Over the next couple of months, they’d very much like to hear from people like you—folks who care about the well-being of their communities.  Specifically, the EPA wants your comments on their proposed guidance around the complex decision-making process of where to locate schools in a healthy and safe manner.

Why take time out of your busy schedule to comment? Because the guidelines will directly affect efforts to preserve or renovate historic schools and will impact the reuse of older buildings for educational purposes.

As we well know, schools are a linchpin for the health of a neighborhood. If a community-centered school is left empty after closure or razed, property values fall, private and public investment tends to shrivel, and the spirits of the local residents are dampened.  However, if a community decides to renovate, retrofit, or expand an older school, then property values rise, additional rehabilitation is spurred, and confidence in the area’s future grows.

These guidelines are intended to be used by Local Education Agencies (LEAs), tribal governments, state agencies, and for everyone involved in the siting process. Moreover, this guidance is to be consulted before decisions are made whether or not to renovate the existing school. It’s critical that we provide the EPA with comments from our preservation perspective.

Are the guidelines long? Certainly. It’s the federal government. But in terms of other federal guidance, they seem VERY short by comparison. Plus, they’ve made it easy for us. They’ve broken the guidelines into bite-sized pieces and provided a lot of excellent navigating tools.

So here’s my “wish list” of what I’d like to see happen:

  • First, share this opportunity widely with your neighbors, historic preservation commissions, Certified Local Governments (CLGs), nonprofit preservation organizations, teachers, principals, and even your pediatrician! Anyone concerned about where schools are located should read the guidelines and offer their comments.
  • Second, let the EPA know that we, the preservation community, appreciate the language that calls for retaining older, community-centered schools. Urge them to retain and even expand these references in their final version.
  • Third, review the 10 parts of the draft. To help, we've provided links to each section and pointed out pieces that would be of particular interest to preservationists.
  • Finally, share your own experiences with schools in your community and how you see these guidelines being used in the future.

In late January, we’ll post the National Trust’s comments that we send to the EPA. For example, we’ll recommend good environmental practices that would help reduce air pollution while encouraging the preservation of older schools such as:

  • As part of the Environmental Review Process, a Local Education Agency could compare the number of Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMTs) between where students live and the different school locations. Since older schools tend to be located nearer the residents they serve, they would fare well in such a comparison and if the community chose to renovate (or expand) the existing school, then fewer greenhouse gas emissions would be emitted.
  • Also as part of the Environmental Review Process, LEAs could compare the population density per square mile of the existing school site versus the other proposed sites. Researchers have found students are more likely to bike or walk if the facility is located less than 1 mile from home and these ways of traveling don’t use fossil fuels!

So those are my two ideas for today.  What suggestions or comments do you have for EPA and how do you see these guidelines playing a role in future siting decisions in your area? Remember, comments are due to the EPA by February 18, 2011.

Renee Kuhlman directs the Helping Johnny Walk to School: Sustaining Communities through Smart Policy project at 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.

Using Data (Ugh!) to Create a Better Plan for Billings, Montana Schools

Posted on: November 30th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation


Written by Renee Kuhlman

Broadwater Elementary was one of four older schools scheduled to be closed a decade ago by the Billings (Montana) Schools District. Today, this 1909 school remains in use after an intensive advocacy effort by students, faculty, parents, and neighbors.

For those folks who enjoy statistics and actually take great delight in reading charts, I’m afraid we’ll never see eye to eye.  I don’t like deciphering statistics or figures unless it’s in very small doses and explained with a lot of text!  But lucky for me (and a few others, I suspect), there are folks like Kathy Aragon. This mother of three children and a Billings, Montana school board member is unafraid to examine what exactly her local demographic data actually means.

But, this blog isn’t about my phobia--and the story actually starts over a decade ago.

About that time, our Mountains/Plains Office helped some Billings residents when they learned that their school district planned to close two of the four historic elementary schools. They would be replaced with a new school on the town’s developing western edge, to save $180,000.  Sadly, we also reported the outcome—three elementary schools closed despite efforts to encourage renovation—in the 2000 report Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School: Historic Neighborhood Schools in the Age of Sprawl.

Fast forward to November 2009. After learning that the same school district proposed further consolidation of facilities, Kathy asked me if the National Trust had resources and if there was a standard definition of a “community-centered school.” learned that Kathy was a school board member who passionately believes schools play an important role in the health of a community.

A physical therapist by training, Kathy began helping with local health and wellness events—including the launch of the annual “International Walk to School Day” in Billings. Her subsequent involvement in the “Go Play” educational campaign to raise motorist awareness about kids biking and walking led to her assisting with a county-wide parent survey on this topic that was analyzed and printed with the help of a local health department.

Through this assessment Kathy and other locals found out that distance from school is one of the main reasons why fewer students are walking and biking to school these days than ever before.  Research shows that kids are more likely to walk or bike to school if they live within a mile of the facility.

Billings School District Policy 9001 requires an annual analysis of the city’s demographics and to use that information when planning for schools. When they looked at the number of five-year-old children per square mile, they found out that the core of Billings had 353 children per square mile and that the location of the proposed new school had 27.4 per square mile. Understanding that school location played a key role in how many students biked and walked to school, Aragon was concerned about these numbers.

Also, because the community had been through a lot when Rimrock, Garfield, and Beartooth schools were closed, the board also wanted to get them involved in the planning process. Realizing it had had flat school enrollment for forty years, the school board formed a Planning and Development Committee with two school board members, two representatives from the district, and nine citizens from across the city.  This committee recently posted their findings online.

Recent analysis of Billings, Montana demographics shows 353 children (age 5 as of 2000 census) living within 1 mile of city core, while there were 27.4 per square mile in the proposed new elementary school location (image on the right). Credit: Google Earth.

So why am I encouraging you to read this committee report from Billings? Three reasons:

  • Because … this economic depression has led more and more school districts to make difficult decisions regarding school closures and reconfigurations. For example, neighboring Wyoming residents are asking their school district NOT to demolish the 1937 South Elementary School in Lander and instead renovate and expand the site so it can serve the community for another 73 years. This video shows the school sitting among “neighborhood homes and businesses” and the high quality of the materials used by the Public Works Administration during the Great Depression.
  • Because … you can take the research done in Billings and compile the same types of information for your own community to ensure neighborhood vitality and walkability are considered during these discussions.
  • Because … this type of data-sharing encourages closer cooperative planning between municipalities and school districts which leads to less waste of time and resources.

So in addition to completing their first demographic study that will be updated annually, what else is this school district doing? Well, they’re also:

  • Working with the local Health Department on completing health impact assessments of all their elementary school sites;
  • Beginning to hold meetings of city, school district, transit, and housing officials to plan collaboratively and find ways to meet their sustainability goals;
  • Conducting listening sessions throughout the city; and
  • Reconsidering all of the previously developed facilities plans this month.

The analysis provides the board with new insights about how their decisions can also meet other community goals—such as increasing the ability of students to walk and bike to school, decreasing transportation costs (the third largest cost for the district), and decreasing costly “sprawl” development. This information will help them achieve their goal of aligning facility needs with educational goals.

Kathy Aragon started researching community-centered schools a few years ago and as far as I can tell, hasn’t stopped. Hopefully, her story will inspire you to look at your own area’s demographics and their deeper meaning for older, walkable schools in your community.

Renee Kuhlman directs the Helping Johnny Walk to School: Sustaining Communities through Smart Policy project at 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.

Green Preservation Needs "Passive Buildings and Active Users"

Posted on: November 19th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation


Written by Jim Lindberg

The Emerson School eco-charrette.

The Emerson School eco-charrette.

Can a 125-year-old school be rehabilitated to meet or exceed the highest standards for energy efficiency and sustainability?  Without sacrificing historic character?  Yes, absolutely!  That was the consensus of a group of 35 architects, engineers, contractors, preservationists and green building practitioners who gathered at Denver’s Emerson School earlier this week for a day-long “Eco-charrette.”

(For the uninitiated, a charrette is an intensive design workshop.)

The Emerson School was recently donated to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Work is now underway to design and implement a $2.4 million rehabilitation of the school to create a new Colorado Preservation Center, housing the National Trust’s Mountains/Plains Office, Colorado Preservation, Inc. and Historic Denver, Inc.

The Eco-charrette was facilitated by Ralph DiNola, a principal with Green Building Services in Portland, Oregon.  His charge to the group was to look into the future and set a vision for energy performance and sustainability at the Emerson School and then work backwards to chart a course for how to get there.

The result was an aspirational, long-range target of reducing energy consumption at the Emerson School to “netzero” by 2030.  The short-term goal is to cut energy use by 50% within two years.  Both are ambitious goals, but attainable in the view of most of the charrette participants.

The Emerson School eco-charrette.

The Emerson School eco-charrette.

As with many existing buildings, immediate energy savings can be achieved by “picking up the fruit that is on the ground,” as Ralph DiNola described some of the easiest initial measures. These include insulating the attic, tightening windows and doors to eliminate leaks, and making thermostats operable (so that rooms are not heated to 85 degrees while sitting empty overnight, for example).  Other energy savings will require more substantial investment, such as the overhaul of the school’s heating and cooling systems.

A key theme throughout the day was to consider ways to use the passive energy-saving features of the original building design, such as operable windows and air ventilation stacks that are built into the central chimneys.  Making full use of these features may require future occupants to participate in the operation of the building -- opening and closing windows, drawing shades or switching on fans strategically, for example.  “We need passive buildings and active users” observed charrette participant Elaine Adams of the Rocky Mountain Institute.  (Historically, much of this work was carried out by a full-time building manager who lived in the basement of the school!  More on that in a future post.)

The group also determined that additional analysis, such as a building energy model, is needed to answer a number of key questions, including:

  • What kind of heating and cooling system will best complement the use of natural ventilation?
  • What window repair strategies make sense?  Should double-glazing or low-e films be added?
  • Should energy-producing technologies (solar, geothermal) be incorporated?  Now, or later?
  • How can interior spaces be rehabilitated to take advantage of daylight, while also allowing for privacy and efficient office layouts?
  • What energy efficiency and green building certifications should be pursued, if any?

Thanks to the great work of our charrette participants, we now have an inspiring vision for how to make the Emerson School a model of sustainable design.  Look for future posts on our progress toward this vision as well as more on the interesting history of this great old building.

A final note: We are just getting to know the Emerson School.  The charrette was our first opportunity to spend a full day in the building.  We liked it.  Our meeting was held in a former classroom on the second floor.  We enjoyed the feeling of the space, with its high ceilings and great views out large, south-facing windows.  These windows kept the room bright enough that we didn’t need electric light until the very end of the day, when a snow-squall darkened the sky just before sunset.  We didn’t need to turn on the heat either, despite outside temperatures that dropped to near freezing.  (Of course we were lucky it wasn’t too much colder, since the heat in this room doesn’t actually work!)

Jim Lindberg is the director of preservation initiatives for the National Trust’s Mountains/Plains Office.

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.

The Electorate Spoke: School Renovation is the Best Option

Posted on: November 10th, 2010 by Guest Writer 3 Comments


Written by Bill Hart

Political candidates weren't the only thing citizens cast their vote on last week. On November 2, many communities also voted on the fate of older and historic school facilities.  I’d like to share two stories from the Midwest region, where I work as a field representative for Missouri Preservation.

In Missouri, historic schools in Vernon County, which could have been at risk for abandonment due to an annexation proposal, will remain in place.  With an overwhelming majority of 69%, voters decided to keep the school systems separate and their older schools in use.

A similar preservation victory was won in Ohio. There, the proposed levy to demolish five of Rossford’s schools in favor of building three new facilities was defeated 66% to 34% of the votes.

The Eagle Point Elementary School in Rossford, Ohio that was slated for demolition if the levy had passed (credit: The Coalition for Effective and Efficient Rossford Schools)

To prevent the demolition of these five schools, concerned citizens formed the Coalition for Effective and Efficient Rossford Schools. They believed that the walkable schools located in their neighborhoods were integral parts of the community, and that the structures were incredibly sound. The proponents of new facilities argued that the buildings (1924 high school and 1923 and 1922 elementary school buildings) were too old to be remodeled and that older buildings couldn’t be retrofitted with 21st century technology to become more energy efficient.

Also, the Ohio Schools Facility Commission preliminary assessment numbers showed renovation to be over two-thirds the cost of building a new facility. Nowadays, this is a state guideline, not a requirement, but it still led some residents to believe the state required them to go with the new facility in order to be reimbursed by the state agency.

So, advocates in both Ohio and Missouri gave many reasons for saving the historic school buildings in these communities.

Newer is not always better. Old age does not undermine an older school building; lack of maintenance does. Studies have shown that it is almost always less expensive to renovate an existing building than to build a new one. Up to 25% of a new school building’s cost is in the building’s shell, not to mention the investment in land and improvements to the land to construct a new school campus. Renovation is the ultimate in “green” building practice.  It contains sprawl and saves on valuable building materials that would otherwise be dumped in our landfills.

Bigger is not always better. It has been shown time and time again that lower class sizes usually produce better test scores. Studies have proven that at some grade levels lower student/teacher ratios correlate to higher mathematics scores. At the eighth grade, it has been shown that lower student/teacher ratios improve the school social environment, resulting in higher achievement.

Caption: If voters had not voted against the new facility, the architecturally rich Rossford High School was one of five schools that would have been demolished (credit: The Coalition for Effective and Efficient Rossford Schools)

Consolidation means loss of community. For students and parents alike, the school is a center of civic life.  It is where we vote, attend PTA meetings, take advantage of continuing education opportunities, and hold community events. It costs us our identity and feeling of safety, and will usually cost much more in transportation costs. Time used in getting to and from school is increased, and takes away from homework and physical exercise.

In Missouri, advocates will help the school district find other examples where older schools have been successfully adapted for modern purposes. In Ohio, now that the levy was defeated by almost two-thirds of the vote, the advocates are developing a plan to present to the Board of Education at their next meeting. It outlines a community-led process for developing a new master plan, suggests a new maintenance plan with dedicated funds for school facilities, and proposes an immediate energy analysis to provide detailed information on the state of the existing building to the community.

These studies may also lead the way towards potential improvements through the state’s energy-efficiency program known as Ohio HB 264, as part of a new Master Plan. The HB 264 program allows school districts to make energy efficiency improvements to their buildings and use the cost savings to pay for those improvements.  “In this one limited instance, school districts can borrow funds without having to pass a ballot issue … to borrow.”

So now that you heard these stories, why don’t you share how schools fared in the voting booths in your community?

Bill Hart is a Field Representative for Missouri Preservation and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He is based in St. Louis, Missouri and would love to learn more about what was decided about older and historic schools in your community on November 2.

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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