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Worth saving

As new high schools go up, some try to preserve bits of the old buildings for the sake of sentiment and history

By Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / March 29, 2009
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The political gamesmanship, the architectural battles, and the funding fights that accompanied the new $130 million high school building Wellesley plans to construct are mostly over, the dust settled - at least until the bulldozers arrive, that is.

Retired teachers Brooks Goddard and Gerry Murphy wander the halls during the last months of this 80-year-old building's life with a special mission: to preserve the soul of Wellesley High School.

Some icons worth preserving are big and obvious - an inlaid brick courtyard where students gather to read during lunch break, the famed clock tower.

Others are more subtle - plaques installed decades ago, cornerstones obscured by shrubbery, bronze medallions embedded in brick, one-of-a-kind Art Deco-style sconces, the classroom door to Room 206 through which a young Sylvia Plath entered the literature class taught by English teacher and lifelong mentor Wilbury Crockett.

Saving these things and reinstalling them in the new building, set to open as soon as 2012, "will provide some continuity," said Goddard, who taught English here for more than 35 years before retiring in 2000. Now he volunteers with the WHS History Group, residents and alums devoted to preserving the high school's past.

"This is a community building. It represents our values and history."

Wellesley is taking a lesson from high school renovations in Needham and Brookline, where preservation of school heritage was considered important in the face of the demolition.

In Needham, workers carefully repaired the school's crumbling entryway columns instead of demolishing them as part of the massive five-year renovation project that ended just a few months ago.

"Everyone agreed that was the face of Needham High School, and they needed to stay put," said principal Paul Richards. "I am a new construction convert, but you have to be sensitive and open to the human need to preserve the soul of a place."

To that end, school officials saved memorial trees, artwork, trophies, sculptures, and a collection of war memorial plaques called "the freedom shrine" from the wrecking ball. When the shrine was reinstalled in the new building last year, "graduates came back and said, 'I remember that,' " Richards said.

When Brookline renovated its 160-year-old high school in the late 1990s, residents preserved a number of old features - the original building facade stands in an indoor atrium, a three-story space used for concerts and events. Boxes of plaques, trophies, antique scientific equipment, even stuffed bird specimens were carefully packed away during construction and then placed in display cases in the new building, which opened in 1997. The outdoor quad area with trees and benches was also preserved in the second-generation building.

Many Brookline High alumni hold their reunions in the building, said assistant headmaster Victor Melehov, "and they marvel that it's new, but they can still walk through the corridors and remember each room. The history is still right there."

History has been a sticking point in Wellesley. Vocal preservation-minded community members, including Murphy, spent almost two years arguing that the historic high school building, which dates to 1938, should be renovated, not demolished.

Murphy still bitterly disagrees with the final decision to build a new school, which he feels is both too costly and unnecessary. He is not a member of the WHS History Group.

But during a recent stroll through the high school halls, where he taught history for 39 years before retiring in 1998, he was generous with his memories.

He pointed to a cluster of dogwood trees in the courtyard planted in honor of John Certuse, a beloved English teacher and Hall of Fame football coach who died in the 1960s. Murphy recalled how in the late 1990s the Perdoni family, local contractors, donated their time and equipment to transform an ugly patch of cracked pavement into a pleasant courtyard with benches where students flock in nice weather.

"This beautiful area has come to represent the school," Murphy said.

Another beloved icon - the clock tower, large weathervane, and cupola atop the school roof - could not be incorporated into the new building design. But it will hopefully be given a place of honor at ground level in a courtyard planned for the new building, said Goddard.

The region's highest-profile project, the replacement for Newton North High School, also has a preservation component, although it has been overshadowed by fierce debate over its $195 million price tag.

Designers have already re-created Newton North's famed "main street" corridor as a central part of the new design, and during the next year the school will remove and refurbish many plaques and other memorials, as well as two large murals near the cafeteria, for the new building. The old building's bright exterior painted panels are shifting to the new Newton North, but will hang in its lobby, said Heidi Black, the school district's director of high school construction.

The existing Newton North has been heavily criticized for being dark, cavernous and unattractive. But its soul is a thing of beauty, said Peter Goddard, a Newton North English teacher.

"The mission of our school is to teach every single kid in the community the breadth and depth they and we are capable of, and we take that really seriously," said Goddard, who is the son of Wellesley's Brooks Goddard.

Already, former students are starting to feel nostalgic for the old building, as flawed as it is, he said.

"An old student came back to see teachers and the building a few weeks ago, and she was choking back tears because she spent so much time in the building and became the young woman she felt she was in that building," said Goddard, who admitted to feeling very sentimental about bidding farewell to his classroom, Room 439, with its bank of windows overlooking West Newton Hill.

"When I leave my room for the last time, I'll feel the same way, because that's the room I became a teacher in," he said.

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com

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