In the face of its civic buildings you can read the character of a neighborhood. The grand columns of the Holly Street fire hall add a turn-of-the-century weight to the business of public safety, while the low-slung fire hall on Davidson Road proclaims West Meade as the land of the ranch house. And the disarmingly modest Belle Meade City Hall reflects the role that the well-heeled expect government to play in their daily livesa sort of servants’ quarters for the workers who keep the Boulevard in trim.
When the community fails to protect and preserve its public architecture, the neighborhood suffers a literal loss of face. Just ask the folks who live near the abandoned Turner Schoolonce an icon, now an eyesoreon Nolensville Road.
Fortunately Nashville has a counter example, and it’s called the East Library. The library’s restoration is proof that making architecture of the past work for current and future generations can reinforce a communal sense of self-confidence. The crowd at the grand reopening last Sunday welcomed the gesture of respect. Several people commented that the library makeover was the first stone-and-mortar affirmation that the neighborhood is on the way back from the hit it took in the 1998 tornado.
Library director Donna Nicely puts the priority given to the East Library restoration into the context of the system’s overall expansion. ”The public library has been crucial to this city for 100 years,“ she explains. ”We thought it was important to honor our history first, because we intend to carry that sense of civic importance into the future, with the new libraries we’re building.“
But the new/old library sends a message far beyond the territory of its users. It’s a message that those who are considering the fate of a public building on the other side of townthe Eakin School on Fairfax Avenuewould do well to heed.
East Library has stood on a triangular patch of ground, where Main Street shifts to Gallatin Road, since 1919. Facing north, away from downtown, the library was, at the time of its completion, the first signal to travelers approaching by Gallatin Pike that they had arrived in a city. The classical style of the architecture told them so.
Ever since George Washington and Thomas Jefferson planned the District of Columbia, the classical style has been used in this country to embody government as a civilizing force. The East Library’s simple rectangle of limestone blocks, set on a raised base to give it civic standing, with a classical pediment front and center over the entrance, expresses a value system that privileges rationality and harmony, stability and permanence. And classicism’s ancient underpinnings signal a healthy respect for tradition.
When Andrew Carnegie set aside $41 million to construct public libraries around the country, his architects grasped that the symbolism inherent in the classical style was perfect for his cultural treasuries. Albert Randolph Ross of New York used $25,000 of Carnegie’s money to construct a small but serious civic temple in East Nashville.
That the language Ross used for the East Library is once again speaking loudly and clearly is a tribute to the determination of Metro’s library administration and the diligence of its architect. The care of old buildings is not easy.
”In renovation, you uncover things that you didn’t know before, that cost you money you didn’t know you’d have to spend,“ says the restoration’s designer, Lelia Gilchrist of Woodson Gilchrist Architects. One unwelcome surprise for Gilchrist was the water seeping into the below-grade ground floor. She discovered that the seepage was exacerbated by the roof drains and the upstairs sink, which dumped water directly into the ground. Solving that problem required digging a ditch all around the building’s perimeter, waterproofing the foundation, and constructing a new drainage and sewer system. The projected budget of $500,000 ultimately rose to over $750,000.
”Donna Nicely and her staff deserve a great deal of credit,“ Gilchrist says. ”Instead of cutting back on the scope of the job when we discovered these complications, they found the extra money to do the whole building.“
Gilchrist spent months researching the history of the East Library and other Carnegie libraries of a similar size and vintage. Her goal was to restore as much as possible of the original look. In the 1960s, the library had been ”modernized“the 14-foot ceilings dropped to 10 feet, fluorescent lighting added, and the reference desk moved off-center.
Today the ceilings are back up, the reference desk and shelves stand in their original configuration, the floor is once again cork and tile, and the oak tables, with their carvings of old initials, sport brass lighting fixtures as well as the latest computers.
”It’s difficult to bring an old building up to current codes and add a modern mechanical system,“ says Gilchrist. ”But this library shows that it’s possible if you want to badly enough.“
That takes us to the Eakin School. The school is actually a complex of buildings, which includes the original Cavert Elementary school of 1928, and Eakin Elementary of 1936. The Metro School Board has retained Earl Swensson Architects to make a school for grades K-4 on the Fairfax site, within the following parameters: the budget must not exceed $5 million, classes must be in full operation during construction, and the end result must function as a brand new school, with a modern organization and mechanical systems, and proper classrooms. The architects are to consider the following options: a totally new school, a total renovation of the existing buildings, or a combination of the two.
Project architect David Minnigan is conducting a series of stakeholder meetings with Eakin faculty, PTO members, and neighbors to get community input on the various options. The process is a first for public education in Nashville, an acknowledgement, Minnigan says, ”of the unique nature of the neighborhood and the property. There are things going on here architecturally that could not be replicated with today’s tax dollars.“
Once the series of meetings are concluded, the architects are expected ”to evaluate the pluses and minuses of the three options, and establish if it’s possible to preserve the architecture from an economic point of view,“ says John Workman, the design services manager for Metro’s Department of Education. Because the architects are not being paid for a detailed design plan for each option, they must rely on ”their best professional estimate, based on what they’ve done in the past on other projects,“ Workman says.
The architects have a difficult charge. The Swensson firm is not noted for its renovation work, specializing in hospital design and large office buildings. And the Department of Education won’t be much help.
Workman says Metro has never done a total renovationwhich he describes as ”bringing everything up to optimum conditions and replacing what you can’t“of one of its schools. ”Most of our old buildings are not of an architectural quality that anybody would consider significant,“ he explains. At a recent stakeholder meeting, members of the audience suggested that the design team study what other cities have done in renovating old schools to bridge the information gap.
The information the architects will have the hardest time unearthing is how to design a renovation plan for $74 a square foot. The East Library, with a much simpler program, came in at $119 a square foot.
Workman says the Eakin budget is adequate, based on his recent experience with new construction. But maybe public education gets so little respect these days in part because the architecture of the typical new school doesn’t convey that anything important is happening within the walls. The same cannot be said for Cavert and Eakin.
Cavert Elementary, like the East Library, reflects a time when classical columns and pediments were considered the right portal to the world of knowledge. By the 1930s, when Eakin Elementary was constructed, the classical style was used in a stripped-down version, a compromise between tradition and the rising tide of modernism. In retrospect, it was a symbolic recipe for economically lean times.
But it’s not only because of the buildings’ histories that the emphatic message emerging from all the meetings is that the Eakin complex should be preserved and renovated. It’s because the unpretentious dignity of the architecture conveys the value that the Eakin parents and neighbors of today place on education.
Getting Metro’s Department of Education to look beyond function to symbolism will be a hard task for the community. They should start by pointing their fingers East.
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