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Our Past Builds Our Future by Carol Masiello   (12/03)

The Virginia A. Blanchard School sits and waits. What is it waiting for, a decision or an accident?

This building has kept watch over its North Uxbridge neighborhood like a guardian for over 130 years. For forty years, the school department has periodically intended to stop using it for classroom space but those plans were always shelved because of over crowding in the other buildings. Allegations have been made that the structure was in violation of numerous building codes and both the school department and building inspector are guilty of allowing children to remain in an unsafe building. During all the years of neglect and ignorance the Blanchard School did what it was asked to do, it kept its promise. A promise to educate the children of Uxbridge and make them the best students they could be. Now the building is a symbol. A symbol of a war between what was and what is to come.

Many in the Uxbridge community think this battle is unique to their town, they feel that it is backward people who call themselves “townies” who want to hold on to this oil guzzling relic to be spiteful to a new generation of residents. The long time residents feel that the “newbies” want to tear down anything that has value or meaning just to hurt townies. An example of just how far people will go to show their feelings about the building was on a public access show where Santa left a cigarette lighter as a present to the Blanchard Feasibility Study Committee (presumably as a permanent solution to the problem of what to do with the building). But what each side does not understand is that the problem of what to do with aging municipal buildings is not unique to Uxbridge, it is in every town in every state in the country. What is lacking is the ability to separate the fact from the fiction, the harsh reality of demolition from the sentimental desire of preservation.

“There is no money” is always the mantra heard when speaking to anyone on either side of the issue, money some feel is wasted on rehabbing an out of date building, or money well spent preserving a piece of town history. Behind the scenes is another culprit in the abandonment of our cultural history and that is growth. These old buildings cannot support the needs of an ever-growing population, and the population is draining the resources of the community as the demand for new schools, new police/fire stations, new libraries, and new senior centers becomes more urgent. Valley towns are being pushed to the limit and these old municipal buildings were built for a simpler time and a slower pace of life, not the age of e-government. Total preservation of these old buildings would cost millions of dollars that towns cannot expend. Even if these structures were improved, would the space be enough to handle the demands? Many ask why preserve old town buildings-they are for a time and way of life that doesn’t exists anymore. Instead of these old buildings becoming a rallying cry to bind a community, in some towns they have become a line of demarcation dividing a community. As a wise woman once said, “you can’t save all the buildings, pick one”.

In Uxbridge there are three more municipally owned historic buildings in dire need of renovation work. One is the Happy Hollow School on Carney Street, better known as the Scout House. Believed to be one of the oldest district school buildings left in town, it sits rotting and decaying while a title dispute is settled. Local groups have volunteered to be involved in the preservation of the scout house but many fear that by the time the title is settled, all it will give the town the right to do is to demolish it. The Coronet John Farnum house (c.1710) on Mendon Street is a town owned historic building that sits empty most of the year except for school tours and historical society meetings. A promise was made to the town in the 1970’s by the historical commission that the building would never cost the town more than utilities, and now the town may hold the commission to that promise. Sills are rotting, one side is bowing out, doors need replacing but the commission, who is the custodian for the building, can barely eek out enough money from the town to heat the building. A third building is the town hall (c. 1878), a dark sentinel in downtown that cannot adapt with its outdated utilities to the needs of a rapidly growing town. The town clerk sits in a 300 square foot office, one half of the building roasts while the other half freezes and groups have to hold meetings in a tiny kitchen because there are not enough meeting rooms in the building.

A casual glance at the local papers for the last year can fill you in on how pervasive the problem is in local communities. Auburn, Bellingham, Franklin, Hopedale, Milford, Millville, Northbridge Upton and Worcester just to name a few, are all struggling with some historic issue in form or another. Some communities have delved into town coffers to rehabilitate their buildings, others are using Community Block Grants, and some are considering demolition, removal to another site or sale to private investors. Milford is an interesting contrast. The town has spent over two million dollars to renovate the 1853 town hall, $1.7 million dollars to restore the 1884 Memorial Hall, and $3.7 million dollars to renovate the Spruce Street fire station. At the dedication of the Memorial Hall, Rep. Marie Parente was quoted as saying; “A nation that doesn’t respect its past has no hope for the future”. The selectmen and building committees all echo this sentiment and give speeches about the spirit of historic preservation being important to the downtown area. In contrast to all the preservation rhetoric at these dedications the School Committee voted to tear down the old Granite School (c.1895) as part of a $21.8 million dollar school renovation project. The decision brought outrage from members of the community especially since the old school is located in the same downtown area that the town spent millions to renovate. The Massachusetts Historical Commission listed the building on its list of ten most endangered historic buildings in the state, but a bright spot has happened this past week. A local Milford developer has offered to save the building by moving it to another site nearby its present location. The city of Worcester, with the support of local preservation groups, has sold the historic GAR Hall to a local businessman who intends to turn it into a restaurant. The proceeds of the sale will go into a trust fund to preserve the historical records that were in the building. The town of Bellingham is planning to build a new town hall, (the present 1802 town hall will be preserved) but the old Center School (c.1873) on the town hall lot is being demolished. A twin to this school, the North School, will be saved because it is closer to its original construction that the Center School. Franklin’s School Committee shook up the town when it considered closing the Brick School, a one-room schoolhouse that has been in continuous operation since 1833, to save a mere $15,000. While the community has rallied to keep this dear building a part of the educational community, the school that Horace Mann went to is rotting and the town is considering selling it. Upton has passed a Community Preservation Act where a 3% property tax surcharge will be put into a fund and one town elected official hopes the money can be used to renovate both the town hall (c.1884) and the Knowlton Risteen Building (c. 1876).

A casual observer would wonder what is the problem? Towns have been tearing down, selling or moving old buildings for hundreds of years and no one ever took a stand to stop it. Growth problems are not new problems, if you were to go through the old newspapers from the 1870’s and 1880’s you will read how area towns were growing and there was an unwillingness to build new municipal buildings. Uxbridge fought building a new town hall for years and picked what they felt was the most worthless piece of land in town for its placement. The town fathers felt good real estate was necessary for a tax producing business, a town hall brought nothing to the community. The two most crowded schools in old Uxbridge were the Center School (adjacent to the present town owned municipal parking lot) and the North Uxbridge School (Blanchard School) and the town’s solution to overcrowding in one school was to move the district line so that the surplus students would go to the other school, thus preventing over-crowding. The difference between then and now is that growth came slowly back then, lack of transportation could not allow it to come quickly. The growth today is rapid and is like a leaky ship. No matter how many holes you plug up, there are still more holes letting in the water. What preservationists fear is that the buildings will be thrown out in order to allow room for the flooding water.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation promotes "adaptive uses" for old buildings calling it the “ultimate recycling”. That's what historic preservation is really all about; it's about hanging on to what's important and what is important is the preservation of the buildings. Compromises are difficult to reach; purists are unwilling to see buildings used for purposes other than what they were originally built for while others feel whatever saves the building is good. Opponents of preservation see building a bigger, more modern building (costing as much as 2/3 less than renovating an obsolete building) as the best solution to the town’s problems of growth and tight coffers. Dreamers see the hand carved woodwork, they hear the echoes of the past and want these to be saved and made accessible to everyone. Somewhere is the middle is the solution. We cannot save every building, but we owe every building the chance for survival whether it be sale to private individuals, re-location or town investment of money, we have to consider every option except the easiest one, demolition. All these buildings have kept their promises and we should return the favor.

Editor's Note: The Selectmen will discuss the Blanchard School at their meeting on January 7, 2004.