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Jacques Kelly: Turning a 19th-century school into a 21st-century resource for Baltimore's Reservoir Hill

The bright new school at North and Linden avenues is one in long line of public educational institutions that have served the Reservoir Hill and other West Baltimore neighborhoods. It’s called the Dorothy I. Height Elementary School and serves students in prekindergarten to the fifth grade.

"You get to the school through a town square," said David Benn, principal with the design firm Cho Benn Holback & Associates, describing the property’s open courtyard and circular drive. “We wanted this be an inviting place, a place where you might even hold a farmers market.”

School records show there have been at least five schools operating here since 1897. The area was known as The Annex, so named for the 1888 annexation of former Baltimore County land. North Avenue, also once called Boundary Avenue, was at one time the northern city boundary.

The building’s many wide windows offer fine views of Reservoir Hill’s distinctive rowhouses and their rust-toned Roman brick facades, which date from the President William McKinley era.

Inside the school, the windows made good on the architects’ determination that corridors wouldn’t be gloomy. Each looks out onto a local landmark — to Linden Avenue and its homes, across North Avenue to the Marlborough Apartments, and to the neighborhood’s churches and former synagogues. The halls include cozy gathering spaces for informal discussions.

“The school reaches out far into the city landscape,” said Mark Nook, another architect on the project from Cho Benn Holback. “There are no bars on these windows.”

School 61 — once known as the John Eager Howard School — sat along Koenig Street, a thoroughfare that seemed to have lost itself in Baltimore’s changing landscape.

Of course, the campus’ landscape has changed as well. The original 1897 Howard School, a Classical-style structure, was demolished and replaced by a series of school structures and additions in 1961, 1965 and 1983. Cobbled together, they needed a series of breezeways and ramps to connect them. By 2010, the whole complex was worn out and needed a re-start.

The new Dorothy I. Height Elementary is named for a past president of the National Council of Negro Women, who died in Washington in 2010. The $33 million school was ready for occupancy this past spring and opened as soon as the paint was dry.

It underwent a lengthy planning process that officials say was designed to reflect a high level of neighborhood involvement. Several years ago the architects began meeting with about 60 neighborhood residents.

"It was a high turnout of people who gave their time," said Nook. He said the design team created a mock game board where community members had fake cash to spend and were asked: Where should the money go?

While the neighbors wanted a new school, they also desired to keep a portion of the old one — and were adamant about retaining the old School 61 auditorium, which hosted so many graduations.

“Because of the community’s advocacy for the auditorium, half of the existing building was kept,” said Sara Langmead, another architect who led a tour this week. “Two-thirds of the building is new and one-third is renovated.”

“The Height School is the best example of a successful planning process to date,” said Nicole Price, director of community and public relations for city schools’ 21st Century Buildings initiative. “This is the best stakeholder investment project I’ve seen.

“I’m knocked out by its success,” she added. “The first time the children saw the auditorium, their faces were priceless.”

Nook said his firm’s recent design experiences at Center Stage, Everyman and Chesapeake Shakespeare theaters informed the design of the Height School’s stage and auditorium.

The school was recently granted the Social Equity Design Award by the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the Neighborhood Design Center. The award recognizes a project “that promotes social equity, good design and an inclusive, community-driven design process.”

Not every vestige of the school’s past could be saved — at least not in its original form. When the old school was demolished, a mural painted by its students was lost.

Except that it was photographed, and has been faithfully recreated in mosaic tile.

It now greets young scholars near the front door.

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