The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, April 3, 2009

A history of the Highland Schoolhouse

This spring’s Town Meeting will not be the first time that the future of the Highland Building hangs in the balance. The upcoming vote to restore the building to its “pre-Emerson Umbrella conditon” or to destroy it is only the most recent in a history of difficult decisions and indecision.

1908: First town-wide schoolhouse

Built in 1908, the Highland Building is one of the oldest public buildings in Carlisle. Situated on “schoolhouse hill” at the top of the knoll on School Street, Highland was built to house all Carlisle students in grades 1- 8. However, the decision to build the first centralized schoolhouse did not come easily. According to The History of Carlisle, by S.A. Bull, in 1892 the townspeople decided that Carlisle had grown large enough to support a centralized school system and formed a committee to investigate building a new schoolhouse. Bull states “the committee was nominated, but nothing seems to have been accomplished.” Between 1892 and 1908 nine Town Meetings included a Warrant Article concerning the proposed school. Despite three affirmative Town Meeting votes, “when it came to appropriating funds, the necessary two thirds vote could not be attained.” After 16 years, in February of 1908, $8,325 was appropriated, and work began almost immediately on the 7,500 square-foot building. The first class met in Highland in December of 1908.

The new central schoolhouse became the focal point of the town. By the 1930s electric lights and indoor plumbing were installed. (For an in-depth history of the Highland School see: “The Highland School reaches for the century mark,” Carlisle Mosquito, January 13, 2006.)

1940 – 1950:

In the 1930s and 1940s, school enrollment remained at about 100 students. With the post-war baby boom, however, enrollment swelled to 139 in 1951. Until the early 1950s, Highland had housed all eight grades in its four classrooms. But by 1954, to relieve overcrowding at Highland, students were housed in the Unitarian Church, the library and the brick schoolhouse. According to town resident Dana Booth (see “Reading, writing and penmanship …,” Carlisle Mosquito, September 2, 2005) “They kept moving them around, planning to expand.”

1950 – 1970: Campus changes

In response to the expanding school population, the Spalding Building was constructed in 1956-7. Although Spalding eased overcrowding, the school population continued to grow and the town responded by adding the Wilkins (1963) and Robbins (1969) Buildings. By 1970 the town population had increased to 2,871 from a pre-World War II level of approximately 700. Most students were now housed in the new Spalding, Wilkins and Robbins Buildings, and by 1975 Highland housed only the 4th and 5th grades.

1980 – 1990: Restore for Town Offices?

By 1985, the Highland Building was in need of repair and was considered out-dated. Because Highland is a wood-framed structure, the state would not reimburse the town for the cost of repairs. In 1986 the last students were moved into the other buildings and Highland was used mainly as cold storage while the town tried to determine its future. In 1986 the town was looking for additional municipal space and also considering school expansion. Highland was considered for both, but high repair costs and lack of handicapped accessibility worked against it. The School Building Committee (SBC) stated that deciding what to do with the Highland School was, “perhaps one of the toughest and most emotional options for the SBC.”

In 1988-89 the town again considered using Highland for Town Offices, but again determined that repairs would be too costly.

1990 – present: Restore or raze?

Again in 1992, the town investigated the possibility of restoring Highland for use as Town Offices. Peter Snyder, in a study presented to the Board of Selectmen, suggested that the school committee transfer custody of the building to the town, perform the necessary repairs, install a wheelchair lift on the front porch and use the newly renovated Highland Building for Town Offices. In his report he states “Perhaps one of the best reasons to renovate the Highland Building is that we already own the building. There is no land to buy or to develop, no expensive site work or roads to build, no new building to plan or to construct, no well to drill or septic system to build. In the end we would have an important and historic building saved, preserved and put to good use.” At Town Meeting in 1993, although funding was approved for further study, the high cost of restoration as well as concerns about security of the school caused the Board of Selectmen to decide against spending additional funds on architectural plans. Town Hall was later constructed on the Conant Land and Highland remained vacant while the town considered its options.

1994 – 2007: Highland becomes artists’ studios

In 1994, at the suggestion of several local artists, the School Committee leased Highland to the Emerson Umbrella for use as artists’ studios. The original ten-year lease called for the Umbrella to pay $1 annual rent and to bear responsibility for all utilities, maintenance and repair of the building. The lease reads: “The lessee shall, at its own expense, 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.” However, over the period of the first ten-year lease, Highland had fallen into a state of disrepair. In 2007, after a subsequent three-year lease expired, the School Committee and Emerson Umbrella came to an impasse over whether the extension of a new long-term lease should occur before or after major repairs were done. The lease was not renewed and the building was again vacated.

2003: Should Highland be moved?

During a school building feasibility study completed in 2003, SMMA architects proposed, as one option, demolishing the Spalding Building, moving Highland to that location and restoring Highland, perhaps with a library/media center. The cost of moving the building was estimated at $150,000 and restoring for school use at $1.35 million.

2006: No longer part of school’s plans

In 2006 the School Committee voted that Highland was no longer suitable for school use, acknowledging that the cost of renovations and improvements necessary for fire, safety and accessibility code compliance were too high to justify. For this reason, Highland would not be considered part of the school’s Master Plan. In addition, the committee said that the building, as it stands, constitutes a substantial fire hazard as well as a security risk.

2007: “Move it or lose it”

In September 2007, with the Emerson Umbrella lease not renewed, the Highland Building was again vacant and in a deteriorating state. The School Committee voted to retain control of the land under Highland for future school use, but requested that, by June 2008, the Board of Selectmen develop a recommendation for the future of the building. In the meantime, the School Committee opted to mothball Highland – shutting off the heat and draining the pipes – once again leaving Highland in a state of limbo waiting for the townspeople to decide its fate. ∆

© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito