Amherst College to demolish historic Little Red Schoolhouse despite opposition

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On May 22, Amherst College in Amherst, Mass., celebrated its own history:  its 165th Commencement.  A day later, on May 23, it began demolishing buildings and clearing the site for its $214 million Science Center.  One of the buildings to be destroyed is the historic Little Red Schoolhouse, designed in 1937 by McKim, Mead & White, which has been described by The New York Times as “America’s most famous architectural firm,” and by National Public Radio as “These Architects Designed A Nation.”

The principal architect of the Little Red Schoolhouse was James Kellum Smith, a McKim, Mead & White partner and graduate of Amherst College class of 1915. Sometimes called “one of America’s foremost architects,” Smith also designed the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, the 12th most visited museum in the world.  Many books have been written about the legacy of the architectural firm, McKim, Mead, and White, designers of the Rhode Island State house and New York’s beloved Penn Station which was demolished in 1963 leading to great remorse which gave birth to the U.S. Historic Preservation movement.

The Little Red Schoolhouse Preservation Committee ( issued the following statement:

Among the oldest purpose-built preschools in the country, the Little Red Schoolhouse is one of the earliest (1937) examples of a progressive laboratory school attached to a college. Wellesley College Professor of Education, Barbara Beatty, author of Preschool Education in America: The Culture of Young Children from the Colonial Era to the Present (Yale, 1997), states, “As a historian of early childhood education, I know that there is a venerable tradition of college nursery schools, purposed-built to be special spaces for young children. To demolish another of these historically important schools, the Little Red School House, would be a loss. We need to be reminded by the presence of structures especially built for children that we value children, and have valued children, more than symbolically, for many years, and pushed to increase how we care for children and their education.”

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The Little Red Schoolhouse’s design harks back to the traditional one-room schoolhouse.  At 2000 square feet, the Little Red Schoolhouse is believed be the smallest building to have been designed by McKim, Mead & White. Speaking about Amherst College’s Little Red Schoolhouse, Dr. Jonathan Zimmerman, Professor of Education and History at NYU and Author of, Small Wonder:  The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory (Yale, 2009), said: “Designed by one of the leading architectural firms in the United States, [the schoolhouse] was an explicit effort to preserve an educational legacy that was on the wane. I don’t know of any other school building that so brilliantly encompasses both the history of American primary schooling and the campaign to keep that history alive. Destroying the school would do more than knock down another piece of our past; it would mock the efforts of our forebears to maintain it. We are better than this.”

The Columbia University Visitor Center website reports that its campus at Morningside Heights “comprises the largest single collection of McKim, Mead & White buildings in existence.”  Columbia’s online building inventory lists 24 buildings designed by McKim, Mead & White.  Amherst College currently has 27 structures designed in whole or in part by McKim, Mead & White.

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Amherst College President Stanley King wrote of the Little Red Schoolhouse, “No building on the Amherst campus is better built.” President King also recognized the importance of Little Red Schoolhouse as a symbol of college-town collaboration, writing, “The fact that the school is open to the children of the town as well as to the children of Amherst faculty is recognition of the fundamental fact that the College is tax-exempt in the town and may wisely therefore make some return to the town.  These facts I think should always be borne in mind in considering the Day School in its relation to the College.”

The Little Red Schoolhouse, beloved in the community of Amherst since more than 1700 preschoolers from the community and the college graduated from there, was granted a one year demolition delay on May 19, 2015 by the Amherst Historic Commission.  The Commission determined the building to be of historic value meeting two historic criteria:  1) “exemplifies the cultural, political, economic, social or historic heritage of the community;” 2) “Embodies those distinguishing characteristics of an architectural type.”

Despite pleas by members of the Little Red Schoolhouse Preservation Committee, Amherst College refuses to move the building, stating that such move would be too costly and that they have no use for the building.  The Preservation Committee received quotes from companies experienced in moving brick or stone buildings saying that it would cost a minimum of $150,000 to move the building, not including the preparation of a new foundation and the preparation of the site for the move itself.  Amherst College states that the cost will be much higher.  Though representatives of Amherst College met numerous times with members of the Preservation Committee and were willing to donate the Schoolhouse to another entity in Amherst who could make appropriate use of it, the College stated that it would not provide any funds for a move and would not allow the building to be moved anywhere on its campus.

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Though members of the Little Red Schoolhouse Preservation Committee requested the opportunity to meet directly with Amherst College President Biddy Martin about the Schoolhouse, she never agreed to meet with them.  Carol Gray, a member of the Preservation Committee, said she believes Amherst College could move the building to a temporary site on campus while it considers a long term plan to repurpose the building. Gray states, “It’s not too late for Amherst College to recognize and preserve our community’s history rather than destroy it. It would be tragic and ironic if the College began destruction of Amherst’s historic treasure, the Little Red Schoolhouse, the day after it celebrated its own history with its 165th commencement.”

The Little Red Schoolhouse, donated by James Turner, Amherst College alumnus, came with its own endowment, approximately $400,000 at the time Amherst College closed the preschool in May 2013.  The College absorbed the Little Red Schoolhouse’s endowment into its own finances.  As of 2015, Amherst College’s endowment was 2.194 billion dollars. According to the College’s website, in 2013, the projected cost of the new Science Center was $214 million and the cost of the new dorms was $60 million. – PRNewswire.

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