By Emily Eisenlohr
Part 3 of a Series on the Work of the Academy Investigation Committee
“Are we there yet?!?”
That common question annoys many a parent. But it’s one that really is the issue before the Academy Investigation Committee, a question that no adult really wants to ask. Does the Academy building itself have a future? The most valuable work of this committee may be to help Madison grapple with this loaded question.
“Land use is hard. And it’s hard to describe.” Selectman Joe MacDougald should know. He teaches land use law at the University of Connecticut and Yale University and is a former Chair of Madison’s Planning & Zoning Commission.
Describing the Academy investigation is especially hard given its location. But each person at Madison’s eateries and coffee shops, when asked what they’d wish for the Academy building, pointed to uses, visual appearance or the character of the area – feel and function. Nobody demanded saving an historic building. Nice, but maybe not feasible. (“But try to save the façade!”)
The Building – M.C. Escher Meets Hogwarts
For someone in a wheelchair or for a less-mobile senior, the inside of Academy School is a little like an M. C. Escher engraving or the moving stairways to the dorms at Hogwarts.
A 2007 JCJ Architecture study described the accessibility challenges. “No floor level is on grade. The main floor is raised above grade by a half-story.” The report notes the absence of an elevator. The basement in the 1936 addition is not connected to and is slightly higher than the 1921 basement. The enclosed courtyard between the 1921 and 1936 parts is accessible only by an “awkward service tunnel” on the west side.
JCJ Architecture, formerly Jeter, Cook & Jepson Architects, also prepared a 2004 study as part of the decision to take the school off-line. That study’s target was the minimum needed to keep it functional. The 2007 study was a more detailed examination of the possibilities of reopening the building as a school. At the time, construction prices were rising so quickly that the study assumed a 10% per year construction price increase. The building’s many challenges and cost hurdles led the Board of Education to turn the school over to the town.
Assessing the magnitude of needed investment is one of the main tasks of the committee. Can any developer recover the cost of using the existing building through sales or rental of units? Would taxpayers approve a costly renovation? One Selectman related that the town engineer and fire marshall will require the building to be up to code. Building code requirements are vastly different now from decades ago.
The 2007 JCJ Architecture study estimated the costs that might be encountered were it a school. The estimates illustrate the magnitudes involved. Minimal renovations would require $6.9 million. The much higher “renovating as new” approach was estimated to total $15.3 million. A new school of similar size, 43,400 square feet, was expected to cost $22.9 million. If housing presenting similar amounts of space were built, could those units be sold under near-term market conditions to recoup a developer’s investment?
Assessing Market Potential
In January 2010 the Board of Selectmen initiated a reality check on economic potential. Its Joint Facilities Review Committee commissioned a “market reconnaissance” study by Harrall-Michalowski Associates (HMA) of Branford. The objective was to assess the market potential for residential, office and retail uses of the building.
The HMA study noted the building’s excellent location, accessible by multiple modes of transportation and by ample sidewalks. Areas beyond a 10-minute drive involve overlap in densely-settled southern Connecticut. Drawing residents from neighboring towns beyond that limit was deemed less likely.
The study concluded that Madison “has become one of the most desirable residential communities along Connecticut’s coastline.” Further, Madison “will continue to support additional development into the near future.”
It also made specific recommendations. Office use was not supported in the current economic climate. The design of the building creates challenges for retail use. The most economically-supportable use was as residential space. It contains about 44,000 square feet of space on 4.21 acres. Possibilities include condominiums, age-restricted condominiums and subsidized rental units.
An Unwelcome Answer?
The 2007 JCJ Architecture study revealed the impact of time and vacancy. The masonry exterior walls are in generally good condition. However it observed water infiltration into the boiler room and substantial leakage around the skylight. Because destructive exploration was not used, the firm could not assess potential damage to the wood portions of the old building’s frame.
The building lacks a sprinkler system for fire suppression. Existing plumbing fixtures are in poor condition and should be replaced along with the sanitary waste piping, boiler and its piping, the inadequate ventilation system, the old lighting fixtures and the inadequate and deteriorated electrical system.
Septic tanks are in the enclosed courtyard with limited access for maintenance. The septic system to date had served just daytime school use, with leaching fields located under a playing field.
Conversations among those familiar with these reports tended to assume the building was likely to be gutted. Fillmore McPherson acknowledged, “The committee can make the recommendation that renovating the building isn’t economically feasible. They could then recommend either to take it down or to preserve the façade.” Don Mullen, having coffee downtown, prefers the latter. “I think you shouldn’t destroy the history. It’s what you drive by, what creates the character.”
Saving History from the Wrecking Ball
When the 1921 citizens razed the first Daniel Hand Academy building, they honored his legacy in a very public and visible way. The left-hand cornerstone as you face the building presents an inscription.
“THIS PART OF THE PRESENT SCHOOL BUILDING IS PART OF THE ORIGINAL HAND ACADEMY WHICH WAS DONATED BY DANIEL HAND TO THE TOWN OF MADISON IN 1884”
Exploring the preservation of memories and history may go beyond the mandate of the Academy Investigation Committee. How might the narrative of education history at that site be preserved even if the building can’t? We may not be ready to admit it, but we’ve arrived at this moment in the history of Hand Academy.
The Joint Facilities Review Committee posted the most recent facilities studies including the DRA and HMA reports. They can be found at http://www.madisonct.org/JFPRC/index.html ).