BRUNSWICK — When he took on Bowdoin College’s project to renovate Brunswick’s Longfellow Elementary School into a dance and art center, architect Timothy Mansfield understood that the stakes were unusual. The $6.5 million job ahead was complicated not just by structural challenges, but emotional ones.
The college wanted to consolidate art studios, offices, classroom space and its dance program from six far-flung locations on and off campus into one place at Longfellow. The 1924 brick structure had, until the spring of 2011, been a thriving elementary school but was not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The town’s decision to close, instead of renovate Longfellow was, and to some extent still is, controversial.
Bowdoin wanted – even felt compelled – to honor the old building, which had served generations of Brunswick residents.
“There was a lot of anxiety,” said Mansfield, whose firm Cambridge Seven was responsible for the creative renovation of an old Boston jail into the Liberty Hotel. That included qualms along the lines of: “They are going to take it and what are they going to do?”
The perception in some quarters was that Bowdoin was swooping in on something precious, even though it was hardly a fire sale. The college made a deal with the town: its downtown McLellan Building in exchange for the Longfellow building. (The McLellan Building is slated to become the new town office.)
On Saturday Bowdoin is throwing open the doors of the new Edwards Center for Art and Dance to the public for what the administration hopes is a warm reception, even from some of those doubters.
“I still get sad when I drive by,” said Erin Contois Vazdauskas, whose son Luke’s first year at Longfellow was also the school’s last.
If she goes to the open house, what she sees might surprise her. From the outside, the old school looks virtually unchanged. The world globes that used to welcome K-5 students remain in place, as do the old metal swingsets off to the side of the building.
But inside, it has been turned into an art (or dance) student’s paradise: big, open rooms, tons of natural light and state of the art multimedia equipment mixed in with the old, such as 18 photographic enlargers in a spacious darkroom and a vintage letterpress that until recently was housed in an old barn. And all done on a relatively modest budget.
Bowdoin’s Dean for Academic Affairs, Cristle Collins Judd, said the college deliberately kept costs low. “We didn’t build the Taj Mahal, for a reason.”
But if Bowdoin wanted to lure more arts students, the Edwards Center should do the trick. Artist Katherine Bradford, whose children attended Longfellow in the 1970s, raved about her early peek at the Edwards Center, particularly about a gallery/work space on the ground floor that will serve as a studio for visiting artists and for shows of student work.
“That is a great move,” she said. “The kids showing and the kids partaking of that gallery opens up a whole life to them, seeing people’s work, making work, putting up shows, attending openings.”
And the second-floor studios of faculty members, including Mark Wethli, John Bisbee and James Mullins, will allow those young people to see professionals at work.
“I never saw an artist’s studio growing up,” Bradford said. “It would have made a difference.”
As renovations got underway in November 2012, Cambridge-based Mansfield’s big- gest challenge was reconfiguring the former gym and cafeteria. There was no way to add a floor within the current structure and comply with seismic regulations.
Mansfield’s solution was to essentially drop a new building into the old. “The building was like a doughnut, with a hole in the middle. What we were able to do creatively was essentially fill the doughnut and increase the square footage of the building while not impacting the cool old aspects of it.”
He said his crews found happy surprises everywhere they turned. Under the carpet that lined the wide hallways was hardwood that turned out to be not just salvageable, but beautiful. Peeling back the ceiling of the old gym they found trusses that he described as “heroic and majestic.”
“That became a theme of the project,” he said. “Uncovering these delights.” For Judd, the slate chalkboard in a classroom that now serves as the print finishing room or the cheery red and blue floor of what was once a computer room are more than just charming details; they are windows to Longfellow’s past.
“We tried to leave things in a way so that people could come back through and feel that they were in their old school,” Judd said.
Jackie Sartoris, a former Brunswick town councilor whose children went to Longfellow, said she has mixed feelings about the renovation. On the one hand, she’s happy the building is being used again and expects to love what Bowdoin has done with it. But at a time when Brunswick finds itself in need of more room to house its elementary school students, it will be bittersweet to see the old Longfellow in its new incarnation, she said.
Brunswick closed Longfellow when its new consolidated elementary school, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was about to open. Stowe was originally intended to hold all of Brunswick’s 3rd through 5th grade students, with K-2 students divided between two old neighborhood schools, Jordan Acres and Coffin. But snow damage to the roof of Jordan Acres necessitated moving the entire second grade into Stowe and all of the K-1 students to Coffin.
Now school officials are considering building another new school and taking other interim measures, including moving 5th graders into Brunswick Junior High School.
On a wall inside the new center, named for Bowdoin’s 13th president, Robert Edwards and his wife Blythe Bickel, Bowdoin erected a plaque memorializing the old school, words paying homage to the past. But for anyone who attended Longfellow between 1924 and 2011, that will not be the only memento they find.
Peek inside the drawing studio and see within it the old familiar bones of the former library, formerly filled with the likes of biographies of Amelia Earhart and Big Nate books, now housing easels, artist’s busts and on weekday mornings, college students, not children.
Walk down the still sloping hallways and past the old kindergarten, where a student prepares to make prints, and stools line the sunny bay window.
For the college and its architect, it all feels just right, and they hope that the same will be true for the community.
“I think it was almost meant to be,” Mansfield said. “There was a sort of karma about the building. When we started looking at the amount of square footage we had to have it almost matched directly the square footage available. It became evident that we didn’t need to change anything about the outside. It was just up to us to bring the building back to life.”
Staff Writer Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at: