Classrooms where children once learned to read and write are being turned into upscale apartments in a project to reuse the vacant Woodlawn School.
Developer Franca DiCrescenzo is also trying to get the school building designated as a historic landmark, a process followed eight years ago by the developers of the Brandywine School. They, too, intended to turn their school into housing, but the project never took off. Instead, the building was left unlocked, becoming a haven for teens and homeless adults. A fire set for warmth by two teens destroyed the school in November.
DiCrescenzo doesn’t want the same thing to happen to Woodlawn.
“There’s only two left now,” she said. “This is the only one that is a school that’s vacant.”
She’s walked by the school nearly every day of her life, because her family’s construction business is nearby. She couldn’t stand to see the neighborhood landmark abandoned, knowing that weather was slowly ripping into the building’s roof. If no one did anything, she thought, the school would eventually have to be torn down.
“When I looked at the entrance I was like, ‘That’s got to be put back in use. Someone’s got to walk through that door every day!’ ” she said. “Just the magnificence of it — I thought it should be reused rather than sit vacant.”
The elaborate entrance, which faces Albany Street, will become a private entrance to one of the apartments. The two side entrances, including one on Kings Road, will be used by other tenants.
Some interior walls are being removed to make space for the apartments, but the rest of the school will remain the same — even the 14-foot ceilings in the classrooms will not be dropped. DiCrescenzo is also hoping to save the wooden floors, which need substantial buffing and may have to be replaced. She’s even trying to save the exposed bricks that she discovered when she removed the chalkboards.
Although it might seem like a school would need substantial renovations to become an apartment building, DiCrescenzo said Woodlawn School is uniquely suited for residences.
“You’ve got 18-inch thick floors and walls, so you’re not going to have any issues with regards to sound,” she said.
She plans to build 18 apartments, mostly two-bedrooms, with approximate rents of $1,000 to $1,800 a month. She’s spending $2.5 million on the endeavor.
She’s ready to start installing bathrooms and kitchens, but first she will try to convince the city that the school should be a historic landmark.
She’s already taken her case to the Historic District Commission. She must also get approval from the Planning Commission and the City Council.
If she succeeds, she will benefit from the city’s tax exemption program for the renovation of historic structures, in which the building’s new assessment would be phased in over 10 years.
But seeking historic landmark status is a risky request — DiCrescenzo is essentially restricting herself as she begins renovations. Until last week, she was worried the Historic District Commission might require her to recreate the school’s original windows, which could only be moved with large, antique cranks. Those windows were torn out long ago, before DiCrescenzo bought the building, in one of the very few changes made to the building. The commission didn’t require her to restore the original windows, although new ones can’t be vinyl.
“None of what they’re recommending is a limitation,” DiCrescenzo said after last week’s meeting with the commission. “Probably because the windows were already changed — if the originals were still in there, it might be a different story.”
She argues that the school is worth preserving not only because of its architecture but also because of its history as one of the city’s first suburban schools.
The school, named Excelsior, was built in 1914, when Woodlawn was still a suburb of Schenectady. It provided elementary through high school classes to more than 700 students every year, according to city records.
At the end of the 1922 school year, the City Council annexed Woodlawn, adding Excelsior School to the city school district. The building was renamed the Woodlawn School and provided classes from kindergarten through ninth grade. It closed in the 1970s and students now attend another Woodlawn School, about a mile away on Wells Avenue.
The vacated school was later used as an office building and briefly became a Guyanese cultural center, but has now been empty for several years.
City Historian Don Rittner is hoping the school gets historic landmark status, arguing that the city needs “reminders of our educational history.”
In a letter supporting DiCrescenzo’s request, he wrote that preserving the Woodlawn School was particularly important considering the recent losses of schools built in the same period.
“In the last few years we have lost part of the educational history of our community with the demolition of schools like the Edison, or the recent fire that claimed the Brandywine School, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places,” he wrote. “As one of the earliest schools if the period, one of the first ‘suburban’ schools in the area, and as one of the oldest and most familiar architectural landmarks within the Woodlawn neighborhood, adaptive reuse of the Excelsior School is preferred.”
Lou Grasso, president of the Woodlawn Neighborhood Association, said residents are enthusiastic about the project too.
“After watching the property deteriorate for more than 10 years, we finally have the chance to see the building preserved and protected for future generations,” he said in a letter urging the Historic District Commission to support DiCrescenzo’s request.
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