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Amherst Historical Commission delays for one year demolition of Little Red Schoolhouse



Last modified: Wednesday, May 20, 2015
AMHERST — Citing its status as possibly the first building to be designed exclusively for use by pre-school classes, the Historical Commission on Tuesday unanimously imposed a one-year delay on Amherst College’s request to demolish the Little Red Schoolhouse.

But even though the commission determined that the 78-year-old building, designed by McKim, Mead and White, is a historically significant structure, members said they will consider lifting the delay if members of the Little Red School Preservation Committee are unable to find a way to preserve the building by moving it to an off-campus site.

Commission Chairman Michael Hanke said long-term preservation may not be realistic.

“I think there is a lot of pluses and minuses here, but I think the people who are supporting this need to understand there are a lot of costs to doing this,” Hanke said.

Amherst College has proposed demolishing the building to make way for a new 230,000-square-foot science center that will be built on the land now occupied by the Little Red Schoolhouse and four so-called social dormitories.

The 1,800-square-foot schoolhouse constructed in 1937 to house the Amherst Day School, last held half-day, pre-school classes in spring 2013 before they ended when the college and those running the program could not agree on a revised pre-school that would meet the needs of faculty and staff.

Carol Gray, whose son attended the school, is leading the revived preservation committee. Gray said she was pleased with the one-year delay that will allow a complete study of possibilities for what could be done and how the building could be reused, suggesting that it could reopen as a pre-school at a private or public site, or for other purposes at a town site such as Groff Park.

The committee will likely explore whether the original endowment that paid for the program could be used for moving costs, or to request funding from the Community Preservation Act.

“Nothing will be lost in trying, but a lot will be lost in destroying it,” Gray said.

Hanke said moving a steel-frame, masonry building will be expensive. “I suspect that $300,000 to move this is very low. That’s my suspicion,” Hanke said.

He said the biggest problem could be finding a site for the building and then connecting it to electricity, water and sewer services.

Still, commission member Laura Lovett said the building merits continued investigation of its status as one of the pioneer structures for early childhood education.

James Brassord, chief of campus operations at Amherst College, told the commission that the area surrounding Little Red will become an active work zone in the coming months and that any potential move of the building needs to happen before the dormitories are razed.

While he would not commit to giving the building to the preservation committee, Brassord said the college will work with those who want to save the structure.

Tom Davies, director of design and construction at Amherst College, said the college has experience in preserving and relocating historic structures and would not have requested demolition unless necessary.

“We were interested in its historic value and its architectural value,” Davies said.

Shepley Bulfinch, an architectural firm in Boston, provided a detailed examination of the building that determined it is neither historically nor architecturally significant and that it would have to be segmented into three pieces to move, at costs between $300,000 and $600,000.

“It’s a case of anything is possible, but it’s not practical,” Davies said.

Commission members asked if there was consideration to preserving Little Red as part of the science center.

Davies said any efforts to build the science center around it would not work, and repurposing a building with cubbies and bathrooms designed for small children does not make sense.

“This is a very small existing structure relative to the science center. I can’t imagine how it would be incorporated as an element,” Davies said.

A handful of preservation committee members joined Gray in advocating for the year-long delay. Gray described the building as a rich part of Amherst’s history and the town’s own “Van Gogh.”

Christine O’Donnell, who taught at the school, said the building was a gift to Amherst-area children and to students at the college, who could appreciate how the youngest are educated.

“I don’t even think the college has realized what it has lost,” O’Donnell said.

Jef Sharp, a parent who used the preschool, said a move of the building would be inexpensive compared to the price tag for the new science building.

“It would be a crime to just demolish it,” Sharp said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.