Letter to the editor: What would Mary E. Taylor do?

Posted:  Monday, January 8, 2018 - 8:15am
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This letter to the editor is a follow-up and reply to a letter to the editor that ran January 3, 2018 titled, "Preserve MET, toss out the Mullin's proposal."

In a recent letter to the editor of the PenBay Pilot, New York Architect Sebastian Quinn endorsed saving the Mary Taylor building, but encouraged the community not to go forward with the Camden Workspace proposal I submitted to MSAD 28 on November 30 of last year.

My proposal is for an adaptive reuse of the existing building, with a total development cost of $780,000, one that is staggeringly lower than past public estimates of the cost to save the building and has raised a lot of eyebrows.

Full disclosure here – I don't know Mr. Quinn or his architectural practice, but I did peruse his website and I do take his comments seriously. He appears to have done some nice work in modernism, and the mid-century home he worked on looks great.

Mr. Quinn's primary criticism, and contention, is that the budget of $300,000 to stabilize and replace key components of the building (namely new electrical service, a new boiler, and closure of the exterior envelope) and the total development cost of $780,000, are insufficient, and will lead to what he calls a Historic Degradation plan.

Comprehensive Renovation vs Adaptive Reuse

The plan Mr. Quinn advocates for is for conversion of the space into administrative offices. From my understanding of the past budgeting process undertaken by the School District's consultants, the initial voter referendum carried a cost for a comprehensive renovation of MET at $3,000,000. This is perhaps one of the reasons the referendum failed.

Mr. Quinn equates a lower total development cost of $780,000 with a failure to preserve the historic Mary Taylor building, while advocating a $3 million renovation that would preserve its character. But I think perhaps it's the other way around. Let me explain.

A comprehensive renovation of the building is different from an adaptive reuse because it involved demolition of the interior, presumably, all of the interior features. I do not know, but perhaps the school's architects might have saves the original entrance and stair, for example. But, although I haven't see the plans, probably everything else would go, because for the purpose of administrative offices, the current classroom configuration is both inappropriate and functionally obsolete. A modern administrative office would need smaller meeting rooms, individual offices, and other spaces that wouldn't fit well in the current layout. So the plan would involve major surgery.

Adaptive reuse means fitting a new program into an existing building (for more on adaptive re-use, look up the Wikipedia article by the same name). Two major benefits here – first, we get to save the interior of the building. We would use the same layout, retain 90 percent of the walls, more or less, all of the wood flooring, and all of the stairwells. We'll even keep the lockers if the school will let us. We will remove the drop ceiling and over time, reconfigure the services above to restore the high ceilings in the corridors that naturally cool the space through convection. Second, because we don't demolish all of these beautiful interior spaces we save money. In the case of this proposal, a TON of money.

That last point is really important because the money saved by not demolishing and rebuilding the interior can be spent on fitting out the space with furniture, equipment, on supporting programs, and on making memberships affordable. Affordability is key to the success of Camden Workspace, because in order to successfully bring together craftsmen, artists, learners, and businesspeople to collaborate, we need to get as many people to come be a part of it as possible.

Functionally, the reason this plan works (space wise) is that our specific program works great in a school. Spacious classrooms make for excellent workshops, and can be linked together without destroying the character of the interior. Co-working includes open-office areas, which again classrooms are great for. I think the historic details will enhance the appeal of the co-working areas (air conditioned cubicles are overrated).

And lastly, the cost for preserving the building as-is for this venture is reasonable because the building is in great condition for what it is, a period-correct vintage school building. The School Board and the District's leadership have taken great care of it. It's a safe school environment for the schoolchildren today and will be a safe and functional space for the members of the makerspace tomorrow.

Ultimately, it will be the choice of the School Board, the voters (by any future referendum), and of the Town (the school must be offered to the Town of Camden first) how to proceed. My role here is not to tell the community what to do, just to come up with a proposal. And the one on the table is the best I have to offer to save the building, both inside and out.

So what would Mary Taylor do? Well I would recommend posing that question to those who knew her best. But I suspect as an educator she would say, study your choices, learn as much as you can about the options, and use your best judgment, and do what's best for the community. And that's all I could ask.

Michael Mullins lives in Rockland