In 1999, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) called attention to the shocking demise of historic neighborhood schools — placing the properties collectively on the organization's list of “Most Endangered Historic Places” — the alarm sounded regarding these heritage buildings could not have been more timely.

As the last decade has seen the largest school building boom in U.S. history, much emphasis has been placed on updating — and often, replacing — aging schools. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 28 percent of all public schools were built before 1950, and many buildings date back to the early 20th century and earlier.

At the same time, public schools also have undergone a resurgence in community-based use and support. Today, schools are planned with extensive involvement from local citizens. Buildings often are open around the clock to local residents for many activities and services. School districts also are actively seeking partnerships with community facilities and resources, sharing land, buildings and equipment; and collaborating with local businesses and community-based organizations.

With schools returning to a mission of broad-based local support — similar to the spirit of many community-centered schools of a century ago — the emphasis on saving historic schools reflects a fitting trend. These schools offer what is often stunning architectural grace and grandeur, and they herald a time when neighborhood life revolved around schools.

Careful research

Once a commitment has been made to preserve and modernize a historic school, an intense phase of architectural research should take place. This includes careful review of original drawings, if available, as well as old photos and other documents. Local agencies, historic-preservation bureaus and history buffs may be able to provide valuable information. In many cases, interviews with local residents, including those who taught in or attended the school, are useful in shedding light on early details. Much of this documentation and lore can be preserved for exhibits or future displays in the school when modernization is complete.

The archival information and interview research may offer critical guidance on the original design intent, but much of the design detail may be elusive and revealed only during exploratory walkthroughs, demolition and early construction stages. This kind of on-site “discovery” phase necessitates a watchful eye to ensure that such clues — or valuable finds — aren't overlooked or damaged. The school district also may want to conduct an appraisal to determine the value of original murals, tile work and other unique aspects in the building's design. Special consideration should be given to restoring, designing around or relocating such treasures.

In order to modernize Lake Worth High School, constructed in 1922 in Lake Worth, Fla., an architectural team worked closely with Palm Beach County's Bureau of Historic Preservation and researched the original Mediterranean Revival-style design.

After decades of use and haphazard expansion, Lake Worth High School no longer reflected its rich architectural heritage. Much of the unique detail of the original building, along with a second building completed in 1928, had long been destroyed or covered up during subsequent remodeling. Designers carefully reviewed original drawings and photos, but some details were not discovered until demolition. In the original building, a large window overlooking the grand staircase was encased during a prior renovation and long forgotten.

The architectural team sought to preserve the design integrity of the two buildings, while fully upgrading systems and infrastructure throughout the entire multi-building campus. Design details, such as period lighting and finishes, refurbishing of the original sash windows, and extensive use of wood throughout the original buildings, echo the original architecture.

As the county's oldest and most historically significant high school facility, Lake Worth High School has been restored to its original splendor as a community focal point. It has regained its stature as a local landmark, while meeting the educational needs of its 2,300 students.

A downtown landmark

Location is important in deciding whether to restore an historic school — reflecting a reversal in trends in the siting of schools. During the earlier part of the 20th century, many schools were in the heart of downtown communities, close to town halls, courthouses, libraries, municipal buildings, stores and other vital components of an urban fabric.

But during the latter part of the century, schools drifted from their community centers. Remote, isolated sites away from the center of town often were selected or “proffered” by developers to school districts. While these sites typically offered more expansive options for ball fields and outdoor activities, they removed students from local resources and often diminished public education's identity and prominence within the community.

The NTHP points out that these remote sites also have contributed to sprawl and traffic congestion, while schools based in the center of towns or neighborhoods afford more opportunities for children, staff and volunteers to walk or bike to school, as well as more opportunities for local residents to use the school building for community events.

Battle Creek Central High School, built in 1907 in Battle Creek, Mich., is on a prominent downtown site on a hill overlooking the Battle Creek River. The school is just two blocks away from the main business district of this town — the “Cereal Capital of the World.” The town's main public library, which also houses school district offices, is directly across the street. Municipal parking lots, which are shared with students and faculty, also are across from the school.

The much-cherished building needed renovation and expansion — the school district wanted to increase capacity from 1,200 students to 1,500 to accommodate ninth-graders — but local residents were adamant that the school not be replaced. The school district determined that the building — a central part of the community's heritage — should remain downtown and continue to capitalize on its highly visible location.

The design team sought to respect the building's original architecture and stay true to the early 20th-century design concepts. The architects carefully reviewed old photos and drawing details as they worked to incorporate modern educational components and functionality while reviving the building's historical integrity.

The facility's award-winning media center, which was expanded by 11,000 square feet, features 18-foot-high windows that were replicated in the new construction, along with ornate plaster pilaster and capital details. The multi-storied addition also features a 500-seat cafeteria in the basement and a large service elevator. While the addition complements the existing architectural vernacular, the facility accommodates its many programmatic functions successfully. As a result, this historic building continues its vital presence in downtown Battle Creek.

Serving education-minded communities

Clearly, preservation of an aging school building — no matter how cherished it is in the community — is not always an option. Expanded enrollment, a flexible program of instructional delivery systems, and state-of-the-art technology requirements can severely limit or rule out preservation options, especially if the costs of a complex modernization plainly surpass the expense of a replacement school.

Increasing demands for sports fields and recreational facilities — supporting both boys' and girls' athletic programs, as well as community demands — also may prohibit the continued use of a school situated on a restricted urban site, unless partnerships can be developed with other community organizations such as a local park, YMCA or fitness center.

Still, historic schools have much to offer education-minded communities: locations immersed in the center of communities, richly detailed facilities, and a chance to maintain a vital connection to a past in which schools routinely opened their doors to the community and residents celebrated their schools.

Kacan, AIA, REFP, is a principal with Fanning/Howey Associates, Inc., in Novi, Mich. Bolling, AIA, is an owner-in-charge with the firm's West Palm Beach, Fla., office.