Tuesday, January 22, 2002

Old schools offer new life for city

        Just because they can't be school buildings anymore doesn't mean they can't be something else.

        Friday, the old Salmon P. Chase Elementary School at 1615 Chase Ave. in Northside will reopen as Chase Commons, 28 condominium units. Built in 1888, the building had been vacant since 1980, a “vandalized shell of a formerly noble building,” in the words of one of the new owners, Carolyn Banfield.

        The city bought the historic building, then turned it over to the Women's Research & Development Center, whose careful renovation preserved the original wood flooring, blackboards and woodwork.

School ties

        This is only the latest example of new life for an old school. The former 6th District Elementary School is now the Elm Street Health Center. Lincoln School on Delta Avenue is an office complex. Garfield Elementary is an apartment complex.

        Cincinnati Public Schools Superintendent Steven Adamowski has begun to unveil plans to educate our children in decent buildings — buildings where the kids won't freeze in the winter and bake in the summer, buildings with roofs that don't leak. If approved, his plan would close 14 schools, build 35 new ones and renovate 32 others.

        Public hearings through Feb. 14 will probably be lively. People feel protective about their old school, especially if they haven't had a piece of it fall on their heads lately. Alison Hovey, who trained as an architect at Ball State University, started her academic life at Sands Elementary, one of those scheduled to close. “I would hate to see them tear it down.” She has drawn up a plan to convert the building to a community center and housing for the elderly.

        Beth Sullebarger of Cincinnati Preservation Association says developers will “snatch up” buildings like Sands and Rothenberg if they become available. And maybe, like the old Chase school or the beautiful Guilford Elementary, now home to Eagle Realty Group, it will open up home ownership opportunities or attractive office space.

An owner's manual

        A new book offers an extraordinary chance to look at what we have. And it may even help the community decide what we want to keep. An Expression of the Community (Art League Press, 224 pages) is a collection of photographs by Robert Flischel detailing the art and architecture of our most distinguished public schools. As he tagged along behind his father, who was a plumber for Cincinnati Public Schools, “I just absorbed the art,” he says. “I didn't consciously notice the beauty.”

        It was a sort of benevolent brainwashing.

        People used to think building beautiful schools might inspire the students inside. There were fountains and murals and stained glass, terra cotta and Rookwood inside our schools. “Some of the most important and beautiful rooms in our community were in our schools,” Mr. Flischel says.

        In a note on the dust jacket, Steven Adamowski writes that the book captures “that which needs to be preserved and offers a compelling portrait of the human spirit's commitment to education and the learning environment.”

        Cincinnati's school superintendent has an ambitious plan to fix our children's school buildings, which will take 10 years and $1 billion.

        Call it Revival 101, a remedial course for a declining city. And just when we need it, a textbook appears. One with lots of pictures.

        E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/pulfer.


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