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Baltimore’s old school buildings have value | COMMENTARY

City College sits like a castle on a hill off 33rd Street.
City College sits like a castle on a hill off 33rd Street. (Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum)

Baltimore officials recently announced plans to sell the former Lake Clifton High School, a casualty of the city’s movement toward smaller schools. Lake Clifton was once Baltimore’s largest school and America’s largest high school when it opened in 1971.

Still, at 49, this behemoth is more middle-aged than senior citizen when compared to other Baltimore school buildings.

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City College’s 33rd Street campus opened in 1928. The Baltimore Design School resides in a 1914 Romensque warehouse. On the west side, James Mosher Elementary was built in 1933 in the Art Deco style of the era.

And Career Academy — the school where I’ve taught for the last 16 years — is tucked inside a relic that was built in 1895.

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Located at 101 W. 24th Street, Career Academy is a small, alternative high school. It occupies the first two floors of a five-story brick rectangle, sort of like a Pop Tart turned sideways, but thicker. (The top floors are occupied by offices for the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development, which Career Academy partners with to infuse employable skills into the curriculum and connect students to job opportunities.)

The building was once a center of activity on Goucher College’s original campus. Between 1895 and 1945, my school building was known as Vingolf Hall — then Goucher’s largest dormitory.

During the first half of the last century, Goucher’s campus included twenty-six buildings for academics, physical training, student life, and presidents’ homes. These buildings dotted blocks from Calvert Street to Maryland Avenue between 22nd and 24th Streets.

The Baltimore Sun archives reveal that the young women who lived in Vingolf Hall more than a century ago enjoyed a vibrant collegiate experience.

They hosted visiting scholars, entertained boards of trustees, held afternoon teas, enjoyed yachting in the waters around Annapolis, put on a production of Alice in Wonderland and played spirited games of field hockey on greens that are now a cramped parking lot. Each June, graduating seniors made “a funeral pyre” on these same greens in order to burn their “hates”: the assigned books that had been especially onerous.

Digging into these archives, I suspected my nostalgic reverie would be spoiled if I kept going, and it was: In 1907 the Southern Club hosted a reception in Vingolf for the writer James Ryder Randall. Randall, a Confederate sympathizer and avowed bigot, is the author of Maryland’s state song, which may finally be repealed next year. In 1909, students in Vingolf Hall threw a Halloween party that included a minstrel show.

Sickening. But not surprising. You can’t explore any facet of our country’s history without eventually confronting our abominable legacy of racial injustice.

Although Goucher College began departing for Towson in 1945, eighteen buildings from the original campus are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including Vingolf Hall. And the college’s former life here survives in the neighborhood’s name: Old Goucher.

Now in its 125th year, the building is full of curiosities: With high ceilings, tall windows and deep sills, my classroom was originally four, smaller rooms, likely dorm rooms. I know this because the room contains four doorways — two of which were boarded up and painted long ago. Out in the hall, ornate wood paneling lies hidden behind the drywall. A narrow and obsolete stairwell, encircling a defunct dumbwaiter, sits at the back end of the building. But on the first floor you’d never know it. The entrance to this stairwell is walled off. It can only be accessed from the upper floors.

Of course, students deserve a first-rate education and schools with top-notch facilities. And under the ambitious 21st Century School Buildings Program — which has earmarked over a billion dollars for replacing or renovating more than two dozen schools — city schools has made progress already.

Nonetheless, modernizing the city’s aging stock of school buildings is going to be a long haul.

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One day, we’ll get on the other side of this pandemic. Schools in Baltimore will reopen. And educators will once again meet the challenge of making older school buildings viable, welcoming spaces for learning. And, after all, it’s the people in a school who create a learning community: teachers who make students feel comfortable and valued; students who form connections with peers they can learn with; the cultivation of a positive school climate that nurtures both collaboration and academic growth.

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One of the best things about being a teacher is hearing students say they like our school. Many thrive, graduate and move on feeling good about themselves.

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That can happen even in an old school.

Adam Schwartz’s (whyadam1@yahoo.com) debut collection of stories, “The Rest of the World,” won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House 2020 prize for fiction and will be published in the fall.

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