The Mary E. Taylor School Building

By Christian Fasoldt, architect | Mar 01, 2018

Camden — There is soon to begin a huge amount of activity on and around Knowlton Street. Over the next few years a new middle school is to be constructed and the existing buildings relocated to the dump. When the air clears and the dust settles we will have an exciting new school facility, fronted by paved parking for one hundred+ vehicles and school buses and a quite unimpressive, wide look southerly over the river and town. There will be no streetscape as we presently enjoy. This is unacceptable. The Mary E. Taylor School Building must remain, be renovated and repurposed for continuing educational needs.

It is instructive to drive observantly down Knowlton Street (off hours). On the right (southerly) one’s view is maintained by the continuous line of the flat roofs of the one-story building’s walls; nicely punctuated by the gymnasium’s pitched roof and again by the lower entry roof. The flat roof of the MET building continues this very long horizontal. Note that the roof line of MET is lower than the ridge line of the gym. The view along Knowlton Street is effectively and pleasantly ended and the parking area chain-link fencing somewhat is screened by the mature trees in front of MET. Along with the other plantings the school presents a not unattractive, comfortable and familiar streetscape.

Above the roofs a good bit of sun pours through to illuminate Knowlton Street, and one can see the town’s tree/roofs line across the river. One is not aware of the athletic fields, playgrounds and school yards behind. One is also not aware of the hovel of structures further behind, along Lions Lane, that are our classrooms, offices, buses and attendant facilities, power sub-station and the sewage treatment plant (note below).

Due to site exigencies, program and vehicular requirements and the need to keep the current school buildings operational during construction, the new school building will be placed deeply into the site and extending to the back (westerly) along and near the northerly property line backing the houses on Washington Street. Southeasterly along and paralleling Knowlton Street, the end of the new, two-story building ridge will be approximately in line with the entry to the extant gym. Removing the structures opens the whole of Knowlton Street’s ‘front yard’ to plenty of daylight, always appreciated by parking and vehicular/bus access areas. Removing the buildings also nicely opens the wide vista from the lower Knowlton Street parking lot and its surrounding chain-link fence, over the ball fields, along Lions Lane to beyond the sewage treatment plant. The occasional glimpses of the river and the Riverwalk should be quite pleasing. The pleasant, village scale streetscape becomes a wide-open view of a sub-urban wasteland. A perfect solution to this calamity is an MET Building. A nice brick masonry building that will retain some recognizable scale to Knowlton Street and to form a decent visual containment (a wall) to the expanse of bus and car parking in front of the new school.

Glimpses of the entire campus are available from along Mechanic Street. This is also the only accessible view we have of the entire Middle School and the rise of Knowlton Street, a view that we are all very comfortable with. The scene is impressively dominated by the MET building, our town’s educational center. This is how our community knows our middle-school. When removal is completed, the vista will be of the backs of the Lions Lane complex and the buses in the foreground, sweeping uphill across the expanse of ball-fields and playgrounds to terminate at a strong horizontal, the parking lot and the bulk of the new three-story school buildings. With MET gone one will be able to view the entire panorama of Knowlton Street parking, top to bottom, school buildings to Bus Barn. Perhaps, if practicable, the mature trees in front of MET might be preserved.

The MET building should be considered a gift to the community. Here we have a well-constructed, intact masonry/timber frame structure, with three floors of high-ceilinged (naturally lit) classroom spaces arrayed along double-loaded, central corridors. This most efficient of building plans, used since antiquity and the classroom wing of the new school lends itself to uncomplicated, clear and intelligible reworking of the structure. The physical changes necessary to bring MET, again to be a standalone building, to current building/energy/accessibility codes, and to upgrade the building systems are all straightforward and easily managed. The simple layout provides for surprisingly ample flexibility for some floor plan/function rearranging. The size and arrangement of spaces also provide for easy adaptability by the users (us).

An added bonus to the work needed to upgrade and rehabilitate MET is that the preservation/rehabilitation issues are easily identifiable and minimally affected by the required work. The interior detailing that is now obscured by previous building changes should be made perceptible. The most critical question in regard to rehabilitation is how to rework the north end of the structure where the ‘to be demolished’ connects w/ the MET building. This north elevation becomes most important as the only streetscape defining element of the parking lots. The community icon and monument regains its place on Knowlton Street and for the most part, the changes will be subtle and unnoticeable.

The MET building has a huge complement of embodied energy (the quantity of non-renewable energy per unit of building material, component or system used to construct and operate the structure). The remodeling work will certainly improve that figure. The energy needed for demolition and disposal cancels that stored/embodied in the existing structure. The building’s construction (early 1920’s) has sequestered a great amount of carbon. Restoring the MET building will not add appreciatively to its carbon footprint compared to demolition. The building systems are outdated, and need upgrading for energy-use reduction. A major expense of this total work is fenestration and envelope heat-loss rehabilitation. Though the systems upgrades are needed immediately, the fenestration work can be phased over a time if financially advantageous.

The whole school buildings project, construction, deconstruction, reconstruction is such a great, exciting event for ‘the kids’ and others to experience and interact with on so many levels. Some may return to participate in some of the new non-curricular offerings at the newly upgraded MET Building.

Reworking the MET building is a wonderful, continuing opportunity to maintain a fine educational facility, easily, simply and inexpensively; upgradable for unlimited contemporary, dynamic community/educational activity - and with the added benefit of saving, if not enhancing, the preservation of the architectural, cultural and historical aspects of the structure.

Scraping MET is not heroic. Demolishing MET is not a viable option.

The Workplace proposal is a perfect fit of existing educational spaces utilized by new, exciting, educational functions requiring little in the way of system upgrades that would not be incorporated in the basic structure renovations. The plan provides for an interaction and melding of various skills, trades, tools, disciplines and ideas under one roof, with the learning of sustainability, entrepreneurship and craft. With a little bit of emphasis on the integrating of art, aesthetics and artisanship, the Workplace would become a fine expression of the venerable Bauhaus Education Idea, electrified. (The German Bauhaus was created in the very early Twentieth Century to integrate the teaching of the fine arts and architecture with the study of tools, trades construction techniques, craft and artisanship. This became the standard for European architecture and design training. European architects, designers, etc. master a building trade or skill to become professionals). The Camden Workplace is an exciting proposal, a very worthy addition to our community educational network.



Comments (2)
Posted by: Gary Born | Mar 04, 2018 07:30

What is the cost of renovating a school vs new construction? Weren't some schools designed so another floor could be added later, thus eliminating the need for a completely new building? There seems to be a huge spend on new construction for schools for a smaller population and where existing facilities could be upgraded at a savings of 65% or more.

Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Mar 03, 2018 15:11

Well written but surely Camden will keep the building and renovate for future educational uses!

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