By Paul McDonnell, AIA
In January 2000 the Buffalo City School District embarked on an ambitious project of reconstructing virtually its entire stock of aging school buildings. Ultimately costing over $1.3 billion the project is scheduled to be completed in 2013. Divided into five phases, three of the phases consisting of thirty-one schools have been completed, the fourth with ten buildings is in construction and will be completed by September, and the fifth and final phase of seven buildings started construction last fall. Ultimately forty-eight Buffalo Schools will have been renovated. What most people don't realize is that this is the largest historic preservation project Buffalo has ever seen.
The New York State Education Department recognized the obstacles Buffalo and other similar cities were facing and offered an extraordinary amount of building aid, (93.7%), to reconstruct and update its schools. This aid was in the form of reimbursement for money spent, meaning that the monies had to be raised up front. Unlike suburban and rural school districts, Buffalo Schools does not have its own bonding authority. It must rely on the City of Buffalo's bonding which has always been limited due to their fiscal constraints. A different funding mechanism had to be developed.
Special legislation was passed by the New York State Legislature to allow Buffalo to pursue financing other than the general municipal bonds sold by the City of Buffalo. To facilitate this a Joint School Construction Board (JSCB) was developed with members from the school district, city and comptrollers office overseeing the project. They in turn hired the LP Ciminelli Construction Companies to act as "Program Provider". Ciminelli would finance the project through the Erie County Industrial Development Agency (IDA) and then in partnership with the school district facilities department, they would hire architects for programming and design and then procure contractors and manage construction. The 93.7 percent building aid from New York State would directly go to pay the IDA bonds. The remaining 7.3 percent would be paid through interest on the bonds and Energy Performance Contracts developed by Johnson Controls. Reconstruction would cost the Buffalo City School District virtually nothing.
Once the project was underway, the first step was to survey and evaluate all 78 buildings to determine what work was needed to provide students with the best twenty-first century learning environments. Studies have found a significant increase in student's performance when they are taught in buildings with ample day lighting, proper temperature control and up-to-date technology. Generally, Buffalo's schools were still safe and clean and well maintained by their custodial staff but a number of deficiencies were found to exist. These included inadequate power for computers and electronics, old plumbing, drafty windows, leaky roofs, inefficient heating systems, disabled ventilation systems and worn finishes. What also became apparent however, was the inherent quality of most of these buildings. Constructed entirely of masonry, with large, bright windows, terrazzo floors, rich woodwork and elaborate auditoriums, these building could not be duplicated and would surely last decades more. It was determined that instead of building new schools; the existing ones would be renovated.
Buffalo's schools were designed by some of Western New York's most prolific architects. Esenwein & Johnson designed the ornate French Renaissance inspired Lafayette High School and the Beaux Arts City Honors. Green & Wicks designed the classical South Park High School, while the firm that worked with the Saarinens on Kleinhans Music Hall, F.J. & W.A. Kidd designed East High and its twin Riverside High School. Other notable school architects included H.H. Little, George Metzger, Carl Schmill and Howard Beck. The most unique group of architects would be a collaborative of prominent Buffalo architects known as the Associated Buffalo Architects.
The majority of schools are from 1920's and 1930's, a period when Buffalo built twenty- four new schools and twenty-six additions. In order to facilitate this massive undertaking, the visionary school superintendent, Ernest Hartwell hired prominent St. Louis architect William Ittner. According to the publication "School Board Journal", "the board of education employed Mr. William Ittner of St. Louis as consulting architect, while a cooperative of local architects known as Associated Buffalo Architects, Incorporated, was employed to carry out the plan production and supervisory service." This association made up of thirty-five architects and headed by Charles Wood, included E.B. Green, Duane Lyman, Max Beirel, and Frederick Backus. They would design such schools as 66, Bennett High and All High Stadium. Buffalo Board of Education Architect Ernest Crimi would design almost a dozen schools during this time, including Schools 67 and 80 both with the same plan but differing details.
Ms. Claire Ross of the New York State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) in her letter determining historic significance stated that these schools are "significant examples of early twentieth century urban school architecture found in Western New York." She went on to say "These buildings possess additional significance for representing the response of the City to expanding school-age population in the booming community and they stand as a reminder of the importance of public education in the history of Buffalo. Designed by local architects, these schools are typical of the period of significance and are fine examples of standardized school design of the early twentieth century." It was decided that virtually all of the Buffalo Schools constructed before World War II were eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and plans and specifications for the renovations would be reviewed by the SHPO.
While many would think that review by the State Historic Preservation Office would be a burden, the school district treated it as an opportunity to define the direction of the project. The reviews would ensure that any of the renovations and changes did not adversely impact the historic fabric of the buildings.
One of the most important elements to be considered was the treatment of windows. No longer would inappropriate aluminum windows with opaque upper panels be used. All of the historic buildings would have their original windows completely restored or replaced with new ones matching the originals. Where windows were restored such as at School 80, Highgate Heights and 97, Harvey Austin, they were removed from the building and taken off site. They were then stripped of paint, repaired, glazed with insulated glass, replacing the original single glass, painted, reinstalled in new weather-stripped frames, and rebalanced. The restored windows are not only sensitive to the design of the building, but they provide ample ventilation, insulation and daylight. Experience has determined them to be far superior to vinyl or aluminum windows.
A major obstacle the district had to address was accommodating contemporary programs in eighty year old buildings that may have been constructed for totally different functions.
Ultimately no one can deny the success of this reconstruction and historic preservation program. The district realizes that strong, successful schools are vital for the city to thrive. In addition, these facilities are the focal points within their neighborhoods and can be the catalyst for community redevelopment. Neighborhood schools are an asset that the suburban districts don't offer. With this project, Buffalo has been able to maintain the integrity of its architecturally significant schools while creating learning environments that are a match to any other in New York State.
Paul McDonnell AIA is Director of Facilities, Planning, Design and Construction for the Buffalo Public Schools, President of the Buffalo/ WNY chapter of the American Institute of Architects, President of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture and Culture and Chairperson of the Buffalo Preservation Board.
Buffalo Rising will be profiling a few of individual school reconstruction projects in coming weeks.