Friday, December 15, 2006
School, history, art meet in Highland Building
The Highland Building holds studio space for artists and memories of old school days for those who attended there. It occupies a valuable piece of land on the school campus, yet it is no longer used for classes. Is the old wooden structure a town asset, or a liability? Or both? However you look at it, exterior maintenance is being deferred while responsibility for the 100-year-old building is sorted out.
The building could use a fresh coat of trim paint around the windows and portico, and the front steps and railing are rotting and need to be replaced. But who will do the upkeep, and where the money will come from, is yet to be determined.
Lease ends in 2007
Next September, the school's three-year lease with the non-profit Emerson Umbrella artists' group based in Concord is up for renewal. The School Committee has leased the building to the Umbrella since 1994 for $1 a year, asking in return in the lease that the group pay the bills for heating, electricity, insurance and building maintenance.
One of the rotted front stair railings recently was removed by the Umbrella and taken to Concord for repair. "We know the steps need attention," said Emerson Umbrella Manager Carrie Flood, though the project is not on the group's current work list. A year ago the Umbrella considered replacing the steps with Trex, a plastic composite tread material, though the project was later dropped. Since that time the Umbrella has added new board members, including architects, to its Building Committee. Flood said the group is now in the process of prioritizing short and long-term needs of the Umbrella's Concord and Carlisle buildings, based on its financial resources.
"I consider the steps a relatively inexpensive and high-priority item," said Flood, "If we have the building for a longer lease, we would do it." As the spokesman for the group, she said the Umbrella does not want to take on major repairs to the building without signing a ten-year lease.
After the school stopped using the building for classrooms in 1986, the Umbrella signed a ten-year lease with the school from 1994 to 2004. The current lease is from 2004 to 2007. The lease specifies the Umbrella must "keep said premises in good order and repair, and in at least as good condition as they are in at the commencement of said term."
Highland was last painted in 1994 when the Umbrella artists moved in and paid for exterior painting. The artists themselves repainted the interior walls and ceilings. A few years ago the Umbrella got new estimates for exterior painting, whichamounted to tens of thousands of dollars, according to Flood.
Inside, the building appears well maintained, with well-worn maple floors left over from its school days, two large staircases on either side, and large windows overlooking school grounds.
The Umbrella pays for the high heating costs of the building, which amounted to around $15,000 in the last fiscal year. It lacks modern insulation and the windows allow heat to escape. The group recently paid close to $3,000 to repair the boiler for the old gas-fired system with steam heat through radiators. A new modern heating system would greatly reduce the Umbrella's heating costs, its manager said. The group also pays other operating costs for the building including electricity and property insurance.
Artists rent studios
Twelve artists have studios, about half of them from Carlisle, says artist Phyllis Hughes, who has rented a studio since they began a dozen years ago. Each of the four main classrooms is divided into two studio spaces, with more studios in the basement of the building. Highland artists pay the Umbrella a monthly rent for the studios, with rents averaging between $600 and $700 a month for a large studio. Each of the large studios is shared by two artists who also share the monthly rent.
The Umbrella has a ten-year lease with the town of Concord for its main studios on Stow Street. At the Concord studios, also in an old school building, artists pay a monthly surcharge for long-term capital improvements, such as a sprinkler system. Carlisle artists do not pay a building maintenance fee because Highland is only under a three-year lease, according to the Umbrella. "The building works for the most part," manager Carrie Flood emphasized, "and the artists value it for private work space."
Hughes encourages residents to see the inside of Highland during open studio weekend this spring. She said the artists there are willing to do some fund-raising of their own to help maintain the building.
Aside from exterior maintenance, Highland appears to have no structural problems, according to Larry Sorli, who last year was Chair of the Historical Commission. Based on a previous visit, he said Highland has a sound roof and windows. (See "What is the condition of the Highland School?" January 27 Mosquito.)
Though not used for classroom space in many years, the school governs the land, manages the lease, and decides who can use the building.
School Committee member Christy Barbee says the biggest issue with Highland is that it is a potential fire hazard to the school should it ever catch fire. The wood-frame building is located just 20 feet from the school's Robbins Building and elementary classrooms. Built in the days before modern fire codes, it has no sprinkler system.
During a previous building feasibility study in 2003, SMMA architects gave the school an option of moving Highland to where the Spalding Building stands, after demolishing that building. The option included adding an expanded library and media center around the building and renovating it for school use. The cost to renovate Highland at that time was $1.35 million at $225 per square foot, plus $150,000 to move the building.
Because of the cost to bring the school up to current school fire, safety, and accessibility codes and other costly renovations, the School Committee voted this year that Highland is not part of the school's present Master Plan completed by HMFH Architects. Also, because it is not used for classrooms, the school does not plan to spend school funds for Highland's ongoing maintenance. Even if the building could be moved off the campus, the question of where to move it on available town land remains, said Barbee.
During the Master Plan process this year, HMFH architect Lori Cowles evaluated the cost to fix up the building for current school use. "We believe the cost to renovate Highland, a relatively small historic building, would be substantially greater than that for the same amount of program space in new construction and/or renovation (of other school buildings)" she wrote in a letter to the school, adding, "Within the new (state) MSBA regulations, it is doubtful that the cost per square foot to renovate Highland for school use would justify the 6,900 square feet achieved."
The school has also been reluctant to give up ownership of the building to the town because the land the building sits on and the area around it is valuable access to the campus from the School Street side.
Beyond the potential fire hazard, and the need for space on campus, another issue for the school is security. The school limits access to Highland solely to the group of artists who rent there. The building, locked at all times, is not open to the public except during open studios weekend in the spring as part of the lease agreement with the school.
Ultimately, responsibility for the Highland likely rests with the town itself. Selectman Tim Hult says he's aware the town needs to form a special committee of school officials, artists, and the Historical Commission. "We need consensus around a plan for the building," he said, and though the idea has been discussed in principle, no group is yet formed.
Hult said he's learned that many residents want to preserve the building and keep it part of town history. And, he pointed out, its current use as artist space appears compatible with the school.
Eligible for CPA funds
At least ten percent of town CPA funds are designated for historical preservation. Of the $600,000 collected in CPA funds in FY07 (town collections and state matching funds) $60,000 is allocated for historic preservation. The Historical Commission applied to use CPA funds to restore the Historical Society's Heald House barn on Concord Road and for a professional survey of historical resources in town. The balance in the historic preserve account today is approximately $208,000, according to town Finance Director Larry Barton.
Highland is one of the candidates for historic preservation, according to Historical Commission Chair Sylvia Sillers. "It's a building that could receive part of historical preservation funds."
Wherever responsibility for its future maintenance lies, one thing is clear. With its lease set to expire next year, Highland, the quiet old school building with many heirs, may soon appear on the agenda sheet of town boards once again.
© 2006 The