Friday, March 27, 2015

Why Neighbors Care: Preservation of the Dearborn School Matters to Roxbury


Carl Todisco lives in Roxbury and is a member of the Mount Pleasant Avenue Neighborhood Association.

As many people know from the news coverage and public meetings, the Dearborn School in Roxbury is threatened with demolition. Roxbury loses if the historic school building on Greenville Street is demolished.

As neighbors, we expect high quality schools for the children in our neighborhoods. But serving our children and saving our history are not mutually exclusive. Both of these goals should be met. Do we want our young people growing up in a world where culturally meaningful buildings are thrown away in a rush to make temporary solutions? Or do we want our children to witness a good example of their adults taking time in a rational, community-driven process to review competing interests and reach consensus?

The Dearborn School stands as a strong statement of the cohesive neighborhood fabric. The Dearborn School has historical significance and also anchors the intact fabric of not one, but two National Register Historical Districts – the Moreland Street Historic District and the Mount Pleasant Street Historic District. So much in Roxbury has been lost to the forces of change and the destructions of Urban Renewal, in particular its civic buildings. By preserving this building we stand up for the value of our neighborhoods and the collective history these structures represent.

By preserving the building, we commemorate the history of women in Boston. The Dearborn’s majestic exterior with carvings and columns defines its important original mission—to educate girls. It has high ceilings, large windows, solid masonry, and Beaux Arts design that bear out this monumental, progressive purpose for which it was designed by the distinguished architect Julius Schweinfurth. Opened in 1912 as the High School of Practical Arts, it was the first public vocational high school for girls in the Commonwealth. The school stands as a reminder that Boston was at the forefront of the movement to educate girls and prepare them for civic and vocational roles outside of the home.


By saving the building, we also celebrate African American history. Graduates of the school include the famous painter Lois Mailou Jones who began her career learning fabric design at the High School for Practical Arts. She is acknowledged as an extremely important African American woman artist, and her work has been the subject of exhibitions at many notable museums, including Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Lois Mailou Jones’s aspiration to become an artist ties the building together with the aspirations of the African Americans who own many of the homes in the neighborhood today.  

By repositioning the Dearborn School, we honor and preserve a physical link to the role the building played in equality and civil rights movements of the twentieth century. Forty years ago, at the beginning of the busing for public school integration in Boston, 35 Greenville Street was Roxbury High School, the school fatefully paired with South Boston High School in 1974’s phase one of the court ordered desegregation. When Roxbury High closed due to under enrollment by whites, there were widespread community protests. Nearly 40% of the teachers were black, the highest representation of minority staff in any Boston public school.

But all of these important stories and the rich architecture of the building that housed them are at stake now. The Boston Public Schools Department continues to describe a project on this site as “renovation of the Greenville St. location” months after the City’s Public Facilities Department approved tearing down the building for the purposes of building a new school.

The public process for the Dearborn’s future has not been robust enough to envision how the educational goals of a project could combine a state-of-the art school in the historic building, and it has not included valuable input and ideas from the community that could lead to mutual satisfaction. “We don’t want this school demolished by a process that lacked transparency,” says neighborhood resident Lorraine Payne Wheeler. Protests, civic action, and a petition first resulted in a 90-day demolition delay issued by the Landmarks Commission.

In January the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC) filed to have the demolition of the building as part of a new development project reexamined. The State Treasurer’s office plays a role because the Massachusetts School Building Authority also requires approval from MHC for construction impacting historic resources. In the coming weeks, neighborhood advocates are hoping for an open process to honestly evaluate solutions.

The Dearborn is 102 years old, and it is an important presence in our community. It expresses many phases of Roxbury and Boston history and the persistent importance of education to our civic life. This public building should continue to teach us about our identities and how our values have been hard won. It is our neighbor! Wise communities don’t destroy the stories of their elders; they give them continued life.

For more on the Dearborn School, tune in here


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