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Are You Listening to What Your School Is Saying?

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It may sound a little bit odd, but I hear buildings talk.

This is not my version of the "Sixth Sense" and I am not talking about all buildings...just some buildings. Actually, I hear a very specific type of building talk; school buildings.

I can walk into an empty school building and hear students, teachers, activities, programs even when they are long gone. And old buildings, as you can imagine, speak loudest of all.

Old school buildings have a classical grace that you rarely find in other building types. Sure, the old train stations speak of grandeur and arrival, but old schools speak of character and permanence. All right, not all old school buildings, but if you go back 50 years and beyond these are, typically, "verbose" structures ripe with verse, nuance and cadence.

No doubt, you have one or more of these buried treasures in your community. Many of these aging resources are shuttered or suffering benign neglect -- dying a slow, painful and very public death. But before any more are thoughtlessly demolished, we need to look more closely at them. We need to listen to what they're trying to tell us.

Don't be so quick to label me a "building hugger." Although I have hugged a building or two in my day, I have also seen my share of school buildings that "had nice personalities" but you couldn't pay me to hug them. So what about the whole talking thing? Maybe it is more a listening thing than a talking thing.

Consider this for a moment: less than 35 percent of the construction cost of a school building is taken up by systems -- electrical, mechanical, plumbing and technology. If you assume that 50 percent of the exterior is "salvageable," then it's just the wall, windows, insulation, interior finishes and waterproofing that have to be replaced. Over 30 percent remains as a standing investment. On a 180,000 square foot high school, at $150 a square foot, the base budget is $27 million. Almost $9 million is sitting there waiting to be capitalized upon.

"Not so fast" you say, "my old building is too big, too small, too far away from our current school age population." Exactly. Now your school buildings are talking to you too.

I've just finished a project in the District of Columbia, modernizing Eastern High School. A massive three story Gothic school built in 1923, it occupies two city blocks on historic Capitol Hill.

When I first toured the building, it wasn't empty, but it might as well have been. It housed less than half the number of students it had originally been designed to accommodate. The few students I did see seemed embarrassed when running into a guest in the hall of their school.

The top floor was closed off due to a leaky roof and a lack of maintenance and empty classrooms throughout the rest of the building were used for broken old furniture and school supplies. Nine-foot windows had been replaced with six-foot windows and the remaining space covered with plywood. Hallways were draped with electrical and computer wires. The gym, cafeteria and auditorium were dismal.

But the building's structure was sound, the ornate plaster molding was hidden but intact. Caged-in light wells could be opened as atriums, unused courtyards could become student commons and the old school offices, long ago walled and partitioned off, could be open to the natural light and configured as one of the most striking media centers I believe that I will ever see.

The more we listened, the more we were convinced that Eastern was a special building. The architect, Snowden Ashford, had designed over 70 school buildings for the District of Columbia. He understood the need for natural light, air and ample halls allowing for easy movement. He knew school buildings were first and foremost built for learning. Ashford liked them to be sited in such a way that the building was above street level, to remind the students that they were "walking up" to something special.

Eastern was planned to belong to the students and teachers -- to be a thriving, integral and proud part of the community. Hundreds turned out for the grand opening. There was a parade down East Capitol Street, followed by speeches and tours of the facility. Everyone knew that when they passed Eastern High School, they were seeing something special.

But Eastern was not the exception to the rule of school design -- a standout among a pedestrian status quo.

Every major school district in the country built grand schools that represented both civic pride and hope for the next generation. But then, something happened. Time passed -- and time took its toll.

The result was that, in 2010, Eastern was still not an exception to the rule -- only now, the rules have changed. Eastern's worn-down state is typical of buildings in every major school district that desperately need modernization.

Modernization, it must be noted, doesn't always mean "new." In fact, the nostrum that "new is always better" can be harmful.

The balance in our listening is the art to the science. We hear a myriad of conflicting things from these buildings. While the designs may be impressive, the foundation may not be sound. While the legacy may be inspiring the building may be an eye sore. The listening must be unconditional, but the interpretation must be discerning.

Many a head of district school facilities has written off an old building in favor of a shiny new one. Many a beautiful old building has greeted the wrecking-ball because the people making the decisions lacked the imagination to improve on a solid, historic foundation.

A perfect example of this is the old Dunbar High School, once the pride of the "colored" school system in the District of Columbia. Like Eastern, Dunbar was also an Ashford design and looked much like Eastern. Unlike Eastern, Dunbar was demolished in the early 70s and replaced by a high school designed by an architect who'd never designed a school before or since. After the riots that ravaged Washington's inner city, the architect was instructed to make security the school's most prominent feature. As you can see, it looked like a prison.

Times are finally changing. Eastern has been modernized and Dunbar is slated to be demolished yet again. Eastern is knock-your-socks-off beautiful, it is old, it is clearly academic, and has all the systems needed to provide a 21st century education. Most importantly, Eastern is again inspiring the children walking its halls. They are proud of their building and they know it is the only one of its kind.

The other day, I visited another grand old pillar of the Washington D.C. school system, Phelps High School, recently modernized after years of abandonment. One of the students walked up to me and smiled with pride, "Are you here to see my school?" It was music to my ears.