School's out, and the bulldozers are busy

Margaret Foster's picture

Summer seems to be the season to demolish old schools. There's nothing that makes people madder than when a neighborhood school is reduced to rubble. One Portland blogger compared the wreckage of a 1920s school to Dresden. People in Beaumont, Texas, took the local school district to court to save their 87-year-old high school, and those "Greenies" are fired up on Facebook. The biggest hit of the summer, at least for fans of modern architecture, was the loss of a 1958 Paul Rudolph-designed school in Sarasota, Fla.

Historic schools are easy to get worked up about. Maybe your kids went there or your parents went there. But you can acknowledge that it's necessary to make sure a school is keeping up with the times, and school districts often say it's cheaper to tear down and rebuild (with historic tax credits that can cover a quarter of the cost, however, that's not always true).

What enrages some people, though, is the lack of control they have over their local school. Historic or not, if a building is around for long enough, they become landmarks of sorts; they've been part of a town for so long that residents consider them public property.

Yet it's usually school districts that actually control these schools. Their boards don't have to pay attention to petitions urging the reuse of the old school. They don't have to be clear to voters who are asked to pass a bond measure to fund the future demolition. They don't have to base their decisions on engineering studies of the building. They can disregard international design competitions that propose new uses for the school. They don't even have to have plans for the site-maybe it's just an influx of extra money that turns an 1897 building into an empty lot, as in Somerville, N.J. And they don't even have to salvage anything from the old building.

But any of those actions-or a few more public meetings-might help douse the flames when a school goes down. Portland preservationists are talking about ways to list schools on the National Register of Historic Places without owner consent. In Texas, the Beaumont school district is now paying legal fees to move forward with its demo plans.  Not a great way to spend your summer vacation.

Margaret Foster is the editor of Preservation Online.

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