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When we value and preserve our old buildings, everyone benefits

paula-benson-mugAs a historic preservation organization, it is not surprising that we are focused on the real estate aspect of the 2017 Boise District School Bond election on March 14th.

The District owns a number of beautiful, historic schools exemplifying civic architecture from the turn of the century through the mid-20th century.  Schools such as Roosevelt Elementary and North Junior High, which have been rehabilitated, contribute to their neighborhoods and are a source of pride.

With the 2017 bond, the District has indicated that it will “rebuild” several schools. That includes the demolition, according to the Facilities Master Plan, of at least 3 schools, including Pierce Park Elementary while others, such as Boise High’s Old Gym, Longfellow Elementary, Whittier, and Highlands Elementary will undergo major remodeling or partial demolition.

Other states and other countries have school buildings much older than ours that continue to function and serve their students and communities. It is often deferred maintenance, more than age, that helps determine useful life.  School improvements, done without raising taxes, resonate well with voters but we believe that any request for public funds should be transparent and carefully considered.

It’s important for us to preserve historic properties because these buildings that show us where we came from, and help us develop our sense of place. Historic properties are much more than nostalgic artefacts: preserved thoughtfully, they teach us why we live as we do, and help us understand ourselves and also those who came before us. These buildings are living proof to visitors and to citizens alike that we’re lucky enough to live in a unique community with a rich and vibrant past.

The Boise School District has had mixed success as stewards of their historic properties.  In the 1980s, they proposed demolition of Boise High School, but found innovative ways to preserve the principal historic buildings.  Following a 2008 bond election however, National Register- eligible South Junior High and Whitney Elementary were demolished and rebuilt.   In 2009, Franklin and Cole Elementary Schools were demolished and the lots sat empty for years rather than being sold with their buildings intact as had been discussed.

In the 1990s, citizens rallied to save the Bown House at Riverside Elementary which has become part of the history curriculum for many Boise teachers.  This, and work done at other North End schools, demonstrates that sensitive rehabilitation can be a realistic part of the District’s plans for meeting the educational needs of its students.  Work funded through the 2017 bond can be done thoughtfully as well, with maximum involvement by citizens and neighbors.

We have three specific requests for the Boise School District:

·      Hire a qualified architectural historian to work as part of the core team making decisions for each school.  This trained expert can help identify the important characteristics of these structures that should not be altered and offer better solutions to meet the district’s objectives.

·      Don’t sacrifice historic buildings to site plans that primarily serve automobiles over people and posterity.   Safe routes to schools begin with inviting, walkable school site plans.

·      If demolition occurs, include assertive requirements for re-use or recycling of materials like maple flooring and antique tiles into construction contracts.
We ask the School Board to continue to look for ways to rehabilitate the historic schools that were placed under their care.  These schools were made exempt from the rules that govern other historic buildings but that doesn’t mean that they can’t receive the respect and care afforded to other historic buildings.  Each school should be reviewed thoroughly, with input from the community it serves, to determine if the existing structures can be adapted with sensitive additions.  All necessary upgrades and repairs can be made while retaining the heritage of these neighborhood landmarks.

The School Board is aware of our concerns and they invited Preservation Idaho to tour the affected schools with them.  We appreciate that they have been open to our comments and concerns.

We are asking for a firm commitment to hiring an architectural historian so that Boiseans can be assured that all options are being considered before irreparable changes are made.  We have offered to assist in any way we can and have let the school board know that we are available during the process.  We support better, safer schools and we advocate for wise stewardship of historic buildings.  If the Boise School District does a little more homework they can achieve both.

Paula Benson is a retired managed care account director for Johnson and Johnson who serves as a volunteer board member of Preservation Idaho, a non-profit 501(c)(3) with the mission of preserving Idaho’s historic places through collaboration, education, and advocacy.

About Paula Benson