Going to School in a Dead Mall? Not Such a Bad Idea.

Photo: SevenDaysVT / YouTube

A sign from Michael Kors in the cafeteria. Teachers posing in front of a Levi’s advertisement. A library in the shoe department. The walls of the classroom – which didn’t even reach the ceiling! – cuts through three types of floor coverings. The photos of the new high school house in Burlington, Vt., The former downtown Macy’s, which were posted online last week were not pretty. “The high school I attended turned out to have dangerous levels of toxic chemicals, so they built a makeshift school in Macy’s in the city’s abandoned mall, and I never saw anything like it. more dystopian ” tweeted Aviva Loeb from the Washington Post.

But I saw something different. Two things, in fact: (a) A thousand children return to school during a pandemic in one of the few spaces in the city large enough to accommodate them at safe distances. “It’s kind of like a place to call home, you know?” A bit of our place now, where we can finally be again ”, Wyatt Harte, a senior from BHS, told local TV station WCAX March 4, reopening day.

And (b) good use of a building whose days are gone. The pandemic has only accelerated the demise of the American department store and the large commercial ship it anchored: the mall. As Jason Del Rey has reported to Recode, more than 1,500 department stores have closed over the past decade, as consumers continue to favor discount stores and the Internet for brand discovery. “The department store genre has brought down the great American mall with it, slowly but inevitably,” Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia University, told Del Rey.

The genre may be almost dead, but the building remains. And for economic, ecological and social reasons, these buildings should be reused. “It’s amazing to think we’re in what used to be a department store; that we welcome people where we buy winter coats; read books in which they once sold fine china; take phone calls in converted locker rooms; and learn science in the old suit lockers, ”Burlington School Superintendent Tom Flanagan, said during the ceremony. A school in a department store doesn’t have to be a sad story. In fact, this should be just the start, both for college students and for a country once addicted to big boxes.

This Macy’s was a late addition to the Burlington Square Mall, which opened in 1976. The mall and the subsequent withdrawal of cars from Church Street was part of a wave of efforts by business districts to attract suburban shoppers by replicating elements of their success – ample parking, all-weather stores, and landscaped car-free paths for walking and snacking. The most successful part of the 1970s project here has always been Church Street, one of two dozen pedestrianized downtown areas that remain in the United States (who once had 200). Church Street is fed by pedestrian traffic from the university, where students have time and money but not necessarily a car.

Now, high school students will have the same advantage. “I am excited about the potential for a vibrant downtown high school that is connected to the city in the way that none of our schools are connected to the city today,” Stephen Carey of the Burlington School Board told WCAX. Instead of being stuck out of town, high school students now have access to Church Street and other urban amenities.

The indoor mall, however, did not turn out to be as appealing as the outdoor one, despite Vermont winters, and owners were hopeful that a new department store would attract more shoppers off Church Street. Built in 1999 as Filene’s, the store became a Macy’s in 2006, and it never flourished. In 2017, the rest of Burlington Square shopping center has been demolished, leaving the Macy’s even more isolated as a replacement project failed to find adequate funding. In early 2018, Macy’s closed the site, along with 100 other stores.

In November 2020, the Burlington School Board signed a 3.5-year lease for the old store, setting a tight 10-week deadline to convert it from shopping to learning. Farrington Construction – which shares an owner with the old mall – got the job done. High school students had shared a building with a college since November, after high levels of PCBs were discovered on the BHS campus. That deadline made me nicer than I could otherwise be for the new school’s botched white wall rollout across the windowless spaces of the store, as well as the remnants of abandoned shops left on display. A long-term solution doesn’t have to be that basic and probably won’t be.

The recently published book by June Williamson and Ellen Dunham-Jones Suburban Modernization Case Studies includes a number of repurposed malls and department stores, including the Highland Campus of Austin Community College. The Architects Barnes Gromatsky Kosarek converted the old 200,000-square-foot concrete, windowless JCPenney building in the center of a new campus, cutting a 170-foot-long skylight in the roof and creating interior walkways with glass-enclosed rooms and a large open-plan IT laboratory with 600 workstations. Similar techniques have been used to convert an old Walmart (also empty and windowless) into a McAllen (Texas) public library, adding skylights and taking advantage of the high ceilings. In both cases, what were once closed, single-use spaces are now bright, bright and attractive. Now that many students are learning online, these large, open spaces have special meaning as socially remote rooms where students can work individually but be together.

“We have 10 to 15 good examples in the database of schools or higher education institutions entering malls,” Williamson says. She notes Shopping town of Maryvale in Phoenix, a community masterpiece planned by shopping center father Victor Gruen, was sold to the school district in the late 1990s and converted into elementary and middle schools. As Build a better burb said: “The old cinema hall has become an auditorium, a former ice rink has been transformed into the neighborhood’s first gymnasium, and the parking lots have become sports grounds.”

“The first outdoor malls with a covered arcade almost look like those California schools that have a history with outdoor walkways,” Williamson says. “From a morphological point of view, the mall is campus type, and it can become an educational campus, a medical campus.” In their book, she and Dunham-Jones point to the potential for these structures to return as more than one thing – the Austin site, for example, has also become a site for new housing and a new headquarters for the local public television channel.

There is also no architectural gap between a department store and a high school that you might think. In the late 1960s and early 1970s – just as Burlington was expanding – many architects adopted inward-looking educational designs, centering their schools around lighted interior common spaces, much like a department store or mall atrium, with balconies that run upstairs and lead to classrooms. The brutalist Southside Junior High (now Middle School) in Columbus, Indiana – a hotbed of innovation for modernism and educational architecture – designed by Eliot Noyes and completed in 1969, has relatively small exterior openings but a large, daylit common area dotted with tables, chairs and trees. Stairs, rather than escalators, taking students to the top. Noyes’ inspiration for the school’s heaviest concrete formwork is clearly that of Le Corbusier Convent of Tourette – a convent with an open-air courtyard near Lyon, France, which was completed in 1960. It is also the inspiration for HOK’s 1970 Neiman Marcus store at the Houston Galleria.

The same era brought us the open plan revolution: schools without walls, with high ceilings and exposed ducts, where groups of students were separated by temporary dividers or level changes rather than classrooms. permanent. Mount. Healthy primary school, also in Columbus and designed by Hardy Holtzman Pfeiffer in 1972, was built as a giant open box with a long, diagonal spine along the center separating the grouped classroom spaces of the cafeteria, library, and gymnasium. The super graphics, colorful rugs, and exposed ductwork look a lot like the fixtures architects today use to renovate large boxes.

And some of the problems encountered by these open schools are also recurring here. “The walls aren’t exactly soundproof,” Harte said on opening day, “but it’s kinda nice because it’s nice to hear all those different voices and you feel like you’re from. returning to a community. ”Over time his opinion may change and luckily air handling and acoustic technology have improved over the past 40 years. There’s no reason why students should have to choose between sociability and clatter, let alone daylight versus denim ads, even when their professors commission a space where Ann Taylor and Aunt Anne reigned supreme.

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