Old school may get new life

Housing, bank planned for historic structure

Plans are in the works to renovate the Colburn School, which was moved in December to make room for a new library. Plans are in the works to renovate the Colburn School, which was moved in December to make room for a new library. (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff/File)
By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / March 10, 2011

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WESTWOOD — A Brockton-based realty company has earned exclusive rights to put together a purchase-and-sale agreement for the Colburn School, a historic structure on High Street that was moved off its foundation in December to make way for a new town library.

Coffman Realty has submitted a proposal to renovate the 136-year-old building, bring in a bank on the first floor, and put six units of one- and two-bedroom housing on the upper floors.

The company has 60 days to agree on a price and obtain permits and other approvals, said Chris McKeown, the town’s economic development director.

McKeown also sits on the Westwood Economic Development Advisory Board, which reviews all projects. “We have not come to that point yet, but we do have to figure out the fair market price for the lot,’’ then add the old house to the deal, he said.

The Massachusetts Historical Commission agreed last year to allow the school to be moved, but mandated that the 1870s structure be restored and remain in the High Street historical district.

Architect Andrew Zalewski of the MZO Group is working with Coffman on the restoration plan. He said preliminary ideas call for spinning the three-story Victorian structure by 90 degrees to face the new $14 million library across a landscaped courtyard.

“It’s important to give the building new life, not make it a museum piece,’’ Zalewski said. “We want to reorient it to keep the main entrance as the permanent entrance that will also work with parking.’’

The 200-ton, three-story building, an example of Second Empire Victorian architecture, was moved in late December into the parking lot at 660 High St., then pushed to the back of the lot. It will stay there until the new library is completed, then be moved a final time, to the current library site at 668 High St.

The school is named for Warren Colburn, a descendant of the town’s earliest settlers and a famed mathematician. In the early 1800s, he wrote “First Lessons in Intellectual Arithmetic,’’ which has sold an unprecedented 2 million copies.

Opinion has been varied about whether the Colburn had historical value, since it most recently served as the administrative office for the town’s public schools. The building has been empty for several years.

“I’m surprised,’’ McKeown said, of Coffman’s interest. “I didn’t think there’d be much from the marketplace.’’

But there were two applications, he said, and town officials decided Coffman’s proposal was more in line with their own ideas.

Coffman Realty is also a brokerage, property management, and development company.

Once the Colburn deal is finalized, work can’t begin until 2012 and the old library is razed, officials said.

Zalewski said the Colburn has historical integrity and, with its tower out front, resembles a lot of school buildings of the time. He said the most extensive alteration was an exterior stairway that was removed before the building was moved.

Restoring that back area would be one of the first orders of business, he said. “We’re prepared to patch the scars.’’

Officials in Westwood and other communities have had ongoing discussions about the need to identify alternate sources of housing to meet many needs, Zalewski and others said.

“People are looking for a product where they can live close to the town center,’’ Zalewski said.

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at