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Historic Neighborhood Schools Deliver 21st Century Educations


The information below is a portion of “Historic Neighborhood Schools Deliver 21st Century Educations” by Constance E. Beaumont.

Historic Neighborhood Schools Deliver 21st Century Educations

Many people equate old schools with substandard schools, but as hundreds of school districts throughout the United States have shown, well-renovated, well-maintained historic schools can support a first-class twenty-first century educational program. Moreover, such schools often provide features lacking in newer schools, such as inspiring architecture, grand auditoriums, large windows, and meticulous craftsmanship.

The generally smaller size of historic neighborhood schools often means more personal attention for students—something most educators favor and extensive research supports. Their small scale can help them be safer and more secure and also lets them fit gracefully into residential neighborhoods. This “easy fit” facilitates greater involvement by parents and residents in the school and can make communities more amenable to passing future bond issues. The proximity of these schools to established residential neighborhoods, coupled with the typically pedestrian friendly layout of the neighborhoods themselves, means more students can walk or bike to school. Thus states and school districts can save on student transportation costs and invest more heavily in programs that foster student learning.

Recent renovations of historic schools in Spokane, Washington; San Antonio, Texas; and Boise,Idaho, illustrate these points and challenge the notion that well renovated historic schools cannot meet modern standards. This article recounts the stories of these schools and concludes with several briefer examples that show how communities have found creative solutions to common problems.

A few additional examples of school renovations, noted below, illustrate how school districts, architects, planners, and others have creatively addressed different barriers, including such widespread problems as:

  • unfamiliarity with techniques for bringing older structures up to modern codes;
  • funding biases that favor new construction over renovation;
  • daunting acreage requirements for schools; and
  • the notion that a new building is inherently better than an old one.

Funding Biases
A policy in Ohio of withholding state funds from school renovation projects that cost more than two-thirds of the expense of a new school discouraged school districts from updating historic schools. But in Greenfield, Ohio, residents worked with Triad Architects of Columbus to have the rule waived to permit renovating the historic Edward Lee McClain High School. This school, built in the Georgian Revival style, was created in 1914 by Edward McClain, whose modest family circumstances required him to work in his father’s harness shop as a young man. There he invented a detachable horse-collar pad that eventually made him rich—rich enough to finance the school’s construction and outfit it with works of art. The school, with its renovation completed in 2001, still enjoys decorative tiles at the drinking fountains, a courtyard flanked by pillars and fountains, marble sculptures, and an art gallery of 165 masterpieces.

In a move toward better stewardship of existing schools, Pennsylvania eliminated its “sixty-percent rule,” which, as with Ohio’s “two-thirds rule,” once favored new construction over the renovation of existing schools. Controversy surrounding the Pennsylvania rule boiled over in 1994 soon after residents of Brentwood, Pennsylvania, learned it would mean losing two beloved elementary schools. In protest, the Concerned Citizens of Brentwood Borough worked with Preservation Pennsylvania, Inc., to persuade the state department of education to change the rules. In 1998, the state not only rescinded the 60 percent rule but also modified its policy against funding the renovation of any school built with wood-frame construction. So long as such schools pose no increased safety risk, they are permitted. Brentwood’s historic Moore Elementary School now has been renovated and continues to serve the neighborhood it has anchored since 1923.

Acreage Requirements
Though well-intentioned, acreage requirements often force school districts into two bad choices: either destroy the neighborhood they are trying to educate or build “sprawl schools” on remote sites to which few children can walk. Such requirements threatened the historic Logan Elementary School in Columbia, South Carolina, in the mid-1990s because the school, which occupies only four acres, could not meet the state’s edict requiring seven acres for elementary schools. But after the school district obtained a waiver from the acreage requirements, the Boudreaux Group, a local architectural firm, completed a $7.9 million renovation in 1999. The project has not only solved space, technology, and building code issues, but has also improved neighborhood property values, once on the decline, and encouraged reinvestment in the area.

Magnets for Sprawl or Anchors For Civic Life?
Not every valued or historic school can or should be renovated. But too many schools are casually condemned by biases that favor new construction, by school facility assessments that reflect little expertise in the rehabilitation of older buildings, and by ignorance of basic techniques for helping older buildings meet modern codes and program requirements. In early 2002, the historic Kirk Middle School in East Cleveland, Ohio, became a casualty for these very reasons. One of the city’s most distinguished landmarks, the school was demolished and carted off to the landfill without so much as a serious evaluation of the school’s potential for renovation.

Too often, ADA, fire safety, and other important requirements are used as an excuse to demolish a valued school when in fact these requirements frequently can be met at a reasonable cost. Too often, smaller, community-centered schools that have held neighborhoods together for decades are destroyed without competent evaluations of their potential for continued use through modernization.

Lakis Polycarpou, a young graduate of Columbine High School in Colorado, strikes home when he writes:

Of course we will always need some new schools. But we have a choice in how we build them. Will they carry a sense of permanence, dignity, respect for education and the public life? Or will they be interchangeable and disposable? Will they be built as the center of a community—an anchor for civic life—or will they be put on the outskirts of town as magnets for sprawl?

The choice is not merely between the old and the new—it is between the dignified and the undistinguished—the enduring and the disposable. It is a choice between thoughtless replication of sprawl and the conscious decision to invest in civic life.

About the Author
Constance Beaumont is director for state and local policy at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and author of Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School: Historic Neighborhood Schools in the Age of Sprawl.


“Many older schools, designed so that students could walk to school, provide small, personal educational settings – reflecting a style of education whose value has only recently been rediscovered by teachers, parents, and community leaders. To abandon or demolish such property without a thorough and creative look at their potential to continue to support twenty-first century educational programs is a waste of valuable community assets.” 

– Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI)

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