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A word with Paula Benson, Preservation Idaho board president

photo of paula benson

Paula Benson

Editor’s note: This Q and A also appears in the next edition of Square Feet on education facilities, which publishes on April 12.

Beyond their core educational mission, schools also serve as essential neighborhood hubs that reflect the needs of their time — from the one-room schoolhouses of the frontier to the high-tech, modern buildings of today.

As more and more aging schools require upgrades and renovation, engineers, architects and contractors face the challenge of preserving the past while also evolving for the future.

The Idaho Business Review recently chatted with Paula Benson, Preservation Idaho board president, about how to manage that tricky balance.

Describe Preservation Idaho’s recent efforts to protect/restore/renovate historic education buildings in the state.

One focus of our work the last few years has been on building a solid relationship with the Boise School District during the run-up to their successful bond issue. Developing an opportunity for dialogue was the first step. After a bit of a rocky start, we feel as though we have a relationship built on mutual respect, and we have been able to make some significant progress in how they approach the management of their historic schools. We’ve worked together to increase communication between the District, their contractors and architects, and the preservation- minded community in Boise.

We would like to increase our relationships with other school districts and universities as well. We have seen both demolition and preservation at our state universities over the last 10 years. Enrollment growth, the need for more square footage, and other factors can put pressure on their built environment so rehabilitation and adaptive reuse can run second to demolition in the quest for larger, more “modern” buildings. We appreciate the challenges they
face and hope to be part of those conversations moving forward.

Montpelier High School. Photo courtesy of Preservation Idaho.

Is it always to necessary to replicate the era in which the building was constructed if additions or improvements are made?

It is not necessary to replicate the era. There are a number of ways to manage rehabilitation or additions so that they are “sympathetic” to the original design. We use that word a lot and it helps to signify that you are not creating a twin of the design or something completely different but that you are ensuring that the design elements blend harmoniously and intentionally with the significant architectural details of the original building. That generally means referencing the architectural style elements of the era, but there are some creative ways to add more modern or diverse touches. Our goal is always to be part of early design conversations so that plans are not so far developed that it is perceived as too expensive to make appropriate changes to retain important features.

Many structures over 50 years of age have seen interior renovations that often need fixing (e.g. asbestos abatement, bad HVAC, poor lighting, non-ADA compliance).  Your thoughts?

Newer realities such as security, ADA compliance, and technological needs have to be included in design discussions for nearly all historic buildings, not just schools. The areas you refer to are sometimes used as an excuse to demolish and build new but we rarely see a building that is truly beyond rehabilitation and we have experts around the state who have the knowledge and the experience to show how it can be done. Whenever we can, we work with our Heritage Partners like the Idaho Heritage Trust, the State Historic Preservation Office, and the Idaho State Historical Society, as well as knowledgeable architects to join us in discussions with public and private property owners. Showing them how concerns, like those you identified, can be addressed with a cost-effective, often less expensive plan, can really help move rehabilitation forward. Demolition fills up the landfill and deprives citizens of their history, heritage, and the beauty of a diverse architectural landscape. We encourage owners to start with rehabilitation options and go from there.

Priest River High School. Photo courtesy of Preservation Idaho.

What’s the biggest crime an architect can commit when renovating a historic school property?

Great question! The first answer for us is choosing demolition! The second biggest crime is architects who choose to put their own “stamp” on the building rather than respecting the intrinsic architectural and historic heritage of the building. Our discussions with the Boise School District have often centered on those two issues. We always say that hiring an architect who has worked on historic buildings is not the same as hiring an architect who knows how to work with historic buildings. It’s an important distinction and one that causes us a lot of heartache when we see some of the proposed modifications or a rush to demolition because it’s an easier design opportunity.

With Boise School District, we have not always agreed on the final outcome, but we are proud of the relationship we have built with them and give them credit for being open to our ideas and our input. At our suggestion, they hired an Architectural Historian to be part of the school planning team after their bond issue. An Architectural Historian is trained to help identify and preserve the historic fabric of a building. That choice has paid dividends for them and for us, and I know they would agree that it has allowed them to see opportunities that they were not aware of prior to that relationship.

Which Idaho school buildings would you most recommend an architecture/preservation fan visit?

To appreciate the variety of styles around the state, I would suggest visiting several schools. The original Art Deco high school in Montpelier, which retains its original windows and has ornate terracotta ornamentation, is wonderful. The high school in Priest River was built by the WPA in 1940 and is in the Art Moderne style. Closer to home, Boise High School is a great example of Neo Classical architecture. The University of Idaho Administration Building is a landmark of the Collegiate Gothic style and has influenced architectural design across that campus. All of these have been listed in the National Register of Historic Places and there are many other schools across the state that are eligible as well. We would love to see them preserved and included in the National Register as acknowledgement of their contribution to Idaho’s historic built environment.

About Kim Burgess

Kim Burgess is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.