If you walked through the halls of the newly renovated school building on Knowlton Street last week, you may have imagined that the whole thing was an easy decision for the community.

School officials were there to welcome the community, and I imagine most everyone who passed through for the self-guided tours on Thursday night had about the same reaction that I did — something to be proud of.

It’s a beautiful mix of modern and historic; housing administrative offices for the Five Town School District as well as instructional space for Zenith (the alternative education program for the high school). The halls were filled with students, teachers, residents, administrative staff and school board members, many of whom had differing views on what should be done with the building just four years ago.

Any hint of grievance or resentment was undetectable as we took in the pleasant and functional space. Everyone seemed happy, perusing the halls of the bright and cheerful building learning about its new purpose and reminiscing over the old.

It was hard to imagine anyone thinking at this point that it would be better to have torn down the old Mary Taylor School and kept the Zenith program crammed into the bus barn for another few years. After the first middle school building vote failed — which included using the MET building for just the purpose it’s being used for today — school officials worked to get the total cost of the project down and eliminated this portion of the plan, resigning themselves instead to coming back to voters later with a proposal to meet the needs of the Zenith program and administration.

Instead of Rose Hall on Knowlton Street, we would have ended up with another practice field (yes, those are in short supply too). I remember when I indignantly approached Maria Libby about why they were planning to tear down the historic portion of the middle school.

She told me that when their first proposal had not been approved by voters, they embarked on listening tours to understand the questions and concerns, and then, somewhat painfully determined that demolition rather than renovation of MET was the only way to bring the project costs down.

That’s about the point that some of us finally started paying attention… and cue the outrage. To make a long story short, after social media campaigns, memes, threats of lawsuits, a Freedom of Access Act request, hostile public meetings, a repurposing committee, and a public vote, we ended up more or less back at the same original plan that had been proposed by the school district. Not everyone was happy.

Even school officials at the time were understandably feeling a bit beaten down and resentful after attempting to be responsive to community concerns and then being berated over the way they tried to do it by people like me, who had failed to follow the initial discussions. The first plan they had come up with really was the best plan, but, as is often the case, the community needed to take the long way around to get there. But on Thursday evening, all of this felt like water over the dam — or under the bridge — depending on your preferred metaphor.

That’s how most things are, I suppose. Almost anything around us of any value to the community has a story behind it that includes harsh words, controversy, course corrections and a failure or two. Luckily, we tend to forget the discord pretty quickly. Or at least we should.

For example, I personally have no memory that there was any controversy over the expansion of the Camden Public Library. It simply didn’t make it on to my radar at the time, but I’m told there was bitter disagreement over many aspects of it. The cupola that lets light into the underground portion was seen as an obstruction on the open lawn and the concerns ranged from the possible safety hazard it posed to insistence that no aspect of the original design should be altered.

From the perspective of a 10-to-12-year-old student at the time, the underground expansion just kind of appeared, and it was really cool that they figured out how to make an underground floor appear light and cheery.

This was more or less the mood at the old brick building on Knowlton Street last Thursday. I had the most wonderful evening last week as I wandered around the newly renovated Rose Hall, which has gone by many names over the years.

What you call it probably depends on the year you were born. Originally, the building was just one story and referred to only as “the brick building,” but it very quickly needed expansion and a second story was added. It became known as the Camden Grade School and still bears that engraving at the original front entrance. In the late 1950s, upon the death of longtime principal, Mary E. Taylor, the school was renamed to honor her.

Some objected to the decision to change the name of the building as part of its remodeling, and initially, I agreed with them. But I now see my rigidity as a bit close-minded and taking a short view of history. At the time of the dedication of the brick building to Mary Taylor — a teacher from away who moved to Camden and ascended the ranks from teacher to principal — one letter to the editor lamented that “this was a dedication of words, not intention, because much of our town meeting was charged with hostility to the need for continued high level instruction of our youth.”

People liked the idea of dedicating a building to a well-known principal but not so much the idea of investing in education. The building history dates back long before Mary Taylor and there is still plenty there to honor her, but would she really insist on the building never honoring anyone but her from now until eternity? I suspect not. Unless we are to be forever tearing down old buildings and building new ones, we will run out of naming opportunities. There’s nothing wrong with taking turns and we cannot let our appreciation for history be a reason not to look ahead with a vision for the future.

There is no doubt that Rose Hall will be a very positive thing for the school system, but there is also a benefit to Camden as a community. Having schools and offices within the walkable downtown is important for economic vibrancy and community cohesion, and so I’m grateful to people who weathered the storm and the inevitable emotion that always comes with meaningful projects.

For anyone interested in some more of the history of school building decisions and the people behind them over the past 150 years, I created a document during the campaign to save the building with many quotations and photographs which can be found at this link: bit.ly/3yfSFTQ.


A shot of the original plans for the Camden Grade School. Note that it was originally only one floor.

The following are some shots of the building after renovation taken on Thursday evening during the public open house.





Alison McKellar is a Camden resident and Vice-Chair of the Select Board. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of the Select Board or the editorial position of The Camden Herald. We welcome letters and guest columns reflecting other viewpoints via editor@villagesoup.com.