Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Destruction of Sylvia Packard Middle School (and so much more)

In many cases, your life is the result of a million coincidences that you are mostly unaware of. You can't pick who your parents are. You can't control the weather in your part of the world. You probably don't even have a choice as to who your friends are going to be in high school. They end up being the people who are most like you in terms of social standing, appearance, and financial status. With so many people in today's world searching for purpose and understanding, it's important to realize that the path you choose to walk in life is often not your choice at all.

I grew up and went to school in a middle class neighborhood in Long Island. The schools were all sturdy masonry buildings with flat roofs. I loved school. I recently realized that I could remember every detail of each school I attended in my town. From the terrazzo floors of my high school to the golden bricks of my elementary school to the metal railings of my middle school. The floors were always waxed and shiny; the dull black science countertops always felt warm to the touch. All in all, these were sturdy buildings designed by competent architects with an eye for detail. Built in the 60's, all of these buildings are still standing today. At least for now.

What I also recently realized was that these schools subconsciously provided me with a love for architecture; more specifically a love of place. With their large aluminum frame windows, generous natural light, and perfectly executed floor plans, these buildings made my young educational experience a pleasure. I remember the brick lined corridors of my elementary school and running my fingers along the grout lines as our class walked the corridors each day. The grout was tooled to be smooth and curved and perfectly fit young fingers without getting scratched. While I can't remember every teacher I ever had, I can remember every class room I ever sat in. I remember the pull down maps that opened as closed as needed, I remember the Eames-esque bent plywood chairs that we sat in, and I remember how the breezes filled the room when all of the windows were opened. We didn't have air conditioning or even a fan. There was nothing made of plastic.

Now while it sounds like I am romanticizing the experience (and maybe I am) this genuinely relates to the state of things in our society. Everyday I hear people say how our world is degrading around us. Values, Customs, Quality. Everyday we lose a little ground to the future. In the town that I grew up in, there was a vote last June to tear down the middle school that I attended. Of course, this came as no surprise to residents, as the school had been closed for more than a decade as a middle school. In recent years it had been rented out as a day care and for office space, but really the sad and inevitible conclusion was that one day Sylvia Packard Middle School would be torn down. And now this day has arrived.

It would not be so sad if not for the fact that the Board of Education had made a choice some years ago that it would be better to build a new middle school than to 'modernize' the current one. The funny thing about that is that the old school (built in 1964) is far more modern than the new one. With its vaulted concrete bus canopy, it's custom aluminum window facade, curved masonry stair towers, and endless examples of craftsmanship, the comparison is not even close. You could not afford to build a building like this in today's market. The craftsman don't exist and the Architects don't spend this much time on Design. The following pictures are just a sample of the Building's elegance (double click to enlarge):





























Now take a look at the school that replaced it (designed by Wiedersun Associates):




While we cannot save every building from the wrecking ball, we can do our best to appreciate the beauty of another's effort in the pursuit of passion. The Sylvia Packard Middle School was designed and constructed with an attention to detail that rivals the work of any great modern Architect. The scale of the building is both human and monumental. The concrete design is economical and poetic. The use of unit masonry as both a giver of structure and a delicate screen creates something bordering on magic when the light dances through it. Schools should not only be places where children get inspired, they should be inspiring. It is both sad and disappointing that the educators of the 1960's were more forward thinking about education than those who are making the decisions more than five decades later.
Looking back, it is easy to see that my passion for Building and Design was greatly inspired by my surroundings. What I can't understand is how we could build schools like this in the 1960's, but we can't build these kinds of buildings today? We have used our technology to engineer the quality out of construction instead of improving it. Instead of masonry, we have foam. Instead of drywall, we have acoustical tile. Instead of terrazzo, we have vinyl flooring. I can only hope that the next Renaissance is around the corner and that future generations will realize that beauty is essential to human happiness. For me, the Sylvia Packard Middle School represents a beauty in constructed form that can serve as an example, even if that example relates to that which should not be destroyed.

24 comments:

  1. The new design looks like a hospital. My condolences for your loss.

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  2. Thanks for understanding. It's a tough blow...

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  3. Stumbled upon the place ridin bikes w some friends. Never even new such a place was so close. weird to have such an old lookin abandoned building round here. Definitely not typical architecture. My friend said Steve Guttenberg went there too. Where the hell is that guy?

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  4. And in Packard Middle School was the oldest Continuously Operating Planetarium in the New York Metropolitan area. I was the Planetarium Director from 1998 - 2003. After I designed a new Planetarium for the new Middle School, the Supt at the time pulled it out of the planning. I then left to direct another Planetarium in the Capital District.

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    1. Hello Steve,
      Do you know where the Planetarium Machine went ?

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  8. The Modular Homes industry represents both cutting-edge technology and quicker build-times.Homes are assembled in a controlled environment - out of the weather,which increases efficiency.

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  9. I attended Packard from '79-'81. I still live in the area and recently did a drive-by. Its almost completely demolished now. Its sad to see it go. After graduating from elementary school, all the kids were so excited to go there because it looked so cool. And how many middle schools in America had it's own planetarium? Its a shame they let it go like that.

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  10. Although I am out of the school for a little under a decade. I can recall the condition the building was in a few years before the new middle school was built. I completly understand your views and ability to reminisce about your teen years. I can guarantee you however, the building needed serious reconstruction or the cheaper route demolition. The fact that the majority of the walls were made of windows heating was poor. The stairs leaked when it rained and although we all want to reminisce of our childhood you should know it was time to build a better building for the children

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  11. Skylark - I agree with everything you said. I only wished that they HAD built a better building instead of the new middle school. With the products and technology available today they could have given a new life to the old structure or at least given a new building the same level of consideration.

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  12. I personally knew and worked with the "architect"who designed the Sylvia Packard school! His name was Robert Alan Buchter,and was a partner with the now defunct firm of Knappe& Johnson. He was a warm generous man who took me under his wing and taught me architecture. He also is responsible for the designs of Hempstead,Northport High Schools, the Mill Neck Manor School for the Deaf,and many other great schools around Long Island and Upstate New York.

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  13. I remember the original mock up model of the 1964 Sylvia Packard Junior High School hanging on the wall at Knappe & Johnson Architects in Garden City. The school was one of Many great schools designed by Robert Alan Buchter. He was proud of that school! He also designed St. Francis church in Wantagh, Saint Bernard's in Levitown, St. Pauls RC church in Jericho.My favorite was his Sound Beach Elementary School in the Miller Pace School Ditrict. The last project I worked on with Robert Buchter was a large Additions to Briercliffe Manor High School upstate. He designed a very large circular Auditorium like the one he similar to the one he designed on the Bayport/Bluepoint Middle School.Hempstead High School was always another of his favorite designs he once told me!

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  14. That's an awesome story Surfcaster. One can only hope that some of those original drawings still exist somewhere!

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  15. I was in the first class at Sylvia Packard. It was amazing. The science classes had seats like a stadium in a university and the grounds were unbelievable. But what made the school so cool and memorable was the Planetarium. Nothing like it. I'm so sorry to hear is is done!

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    1. When I went there those science rooms were being used for foreign language - the back courtyard was really overgrown and no one ever went outside except at gym class. It was a building ahead of its time!

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  16. Inspirational. I wish my fleet management solutions company can do this as well. We would like to expand and have one of the most wonderfully made buildings in the US. We hope to see that in the future. Thanks for sharing!

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  17. Kim - I appreciate the note. Would love to see pics of your building!

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  18. I am a Plainedge grad of the class of '82 and attended Sylvia Packard twice - 6th grade and 8th grade. I understand your pain - For 7th grade I attended Southedge Jr. High, which used to be a few blocks from the High School on Magnolia Dr. at Oak and Hawthorne Streets. That year the school board decided to close it and demolish it at the end of the school year. Both my older siblings had attended Southedge and it was literally just down the block from my home. While it's design was not modern, most closely resembling one of the nearby elementary schools, it had a history and a vibe that Packard just didn't have. It didn't have a planetarium or spiral staircases (which students used to be injured on literally every day btw), it was MY junior high school.

    I was inside the auditorium with friends when they started knocking it down. We swiped some of the whole glass bricks from the front of the building as a memento. I still have one...

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    1. Ed - great post - When you see the kind of schools they build today, it's hard to believe they knocked the old ones down..

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  19. Does anyone Know who removed and took the Planetarium??

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  20. How about the Time cap buried in front of the main office? Did they save it?
    I attended the very first day it opened, after waiting going to Southedge during the construction, miss the Science (Acid Spilled all over my teacher in one lab) and Art (Abstract) Math ('New Math' remember that?) class rooms . Library (Quite!) and Planetarium.
    Oh and the best was trying to get from one class to the next on the sprial stairways.
    And how about that N.Y. Social Studies Club trip to Old Sturbridge Village and Williamsberg. Wow what times we had then. I could go on and on. But you too may have these memories I Hope So.
    Crsig Miller. Now living in Florida. domainman@bellsouth.net

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  21. I attended Sylvia Packard, and the planetarium was wonderful. The school had great architecture such as the spiral staircases. It was an inspiring place to go to school and provided a lot of opportunities to learn. I would love to know what they did with the planetarium?
    Karen (Gulski) Alexander - now living in New Mexico

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