Demolishing Big Red in Winsted

My big red elementary schoolhouse is scheduled to be demolished after 88 years of faithful service to thousands of children. Big Red is structurally solid and architecturally of classic, many-window design. It needs renovation which is what many communities do so well these days. And as the Connecticut Department of Education architect put it: “Generally, renovation costs are half those of new construction costs.”

But Winsted is not like other communities, including nearby Litchfield, with respect to preserving sturdy and more venerable architecture than what is usually built today. Those in a position to decide have chosen demolition of the old school, as in the past the historic railroad station and a majestic 22 room mansion were destroyed.

I remember, as a school boy, watching a wrecking ball hammering furiously over and over again against the strong walls of the great mansion to salvage and sell the brick. Even with its beautiful furnishings, no private buyer was found for the $8,000 selling price in 1944. Then the town refused to accept the mansion and its grounds from the estate.

When the School Building Committee announced in the Spring of 1987 that a new school addition would be built on the playground area and that it would extend into the space now occupied by Big Red, the controversy was underway.

The demolitionists claimed that renovation would be more expensive than new construction and that it is better to build a one-story, lengthy-type school in order to better service and control the children and avoid their going up and down a flight of stairs. The new school was to have a long flat roof.

The preservationists claimed the contrary. They said that renovation was cheaper, that the old school was better architecture than the modern, motel-type structures presently being built with likely flat roof problems such as leaks. They added that it did not make sense to replace over 20,000 square feet of space which can be tastefully renovated with under 6,000 square feet of newly built space. If not used for school space, the grand building could be used for other municipal and civic purposes. (The Town Hall is bursting at the seams.)

By the time these objections were raised, the ranks of the demolitionists were closed in quite predictable ways. The architectural firm makes more money building rather than renovating. The Superintendent of Schools, to recall a former School Building Committee Chairman’s comment “gets brownie points [on his resume] for building new schools.” The School Building Committee, unengaged from critical outside reviews, can be quite impressed with the persuasions of these two institutional advocates expressed in session after session.

Let us say that there were arguments on both sides. Let us further note that Winsted has a town-meeting, referendum kind of government. If there is any jurisdiction where democracy can be practiced on the merits, it should be here. This certainly is the textbook appraisal.

Power has a way of distorting the level playing fields envisioned by the law. And officialdom has the power to place costly, time-consuming and often obscure hurdles before those challengers who are on the outside.

All these hurdles spell delay while officialdom is obtaining a referendum approval for its bonds and moving along with its construction plans. “The more we get done, the harder it will be for people to stop it” was the way one member of the Board of Education put it.

Challenging local officialdom requires information which was

slow and incomplete in emerging from the Superintendent of Schools. Citizens requested the estimates in May 1987 for the $7.86 million bond issue and were told there was nothing available. Yet a report dated February 1987 from the architect was finally provided in July 1987 after the referendum. A site plan for the Hinsdale school was not provided, once the School Building Committee acquired it.

Civic groups need to have an accurate interpretation of the local laws which provide the crucial procedural rights to review and challenge official decisions. The relevant Town charter provisions were pronounced “thoroughly confusing” by the State’s leading municipal law expert.

The Town Attorney, who lived 10 miles out of Town, advised the Mayor that there could not be another referendum for repeal of the June vote. He declined to put this opinion in writing for weeks, despite a request to do so by one of the Selectmen. When he did submit a brief one page letter, there was a paucity of legal reasoning.

A citizens’ petition drive for a new vote was held up for several months until they won a mandamus judgment in court ordering the Board of Selectman to schedule a referendum. Three noted specialists, consulted by the preservationists, had advised much earlier what the judge decided. But these specialists were ignored by officialdom.

It helped the demolitionists’ cause to have their architectural firm make the most generous contributions to their political action committee or to avoid making realistic comparison costs on maintenance and operating budgets. It helped to have school resources and facilities used illicitly in the first referendum campaign last June.

Above all, it helped for officialdom to grossly distort the reach of the preservationists’ proposed ordinance in order to alarm homeowners and others that any renovation they undertook would be restricted.

These imbalances feed a heavy air of resignation among local voters. About two years ago, some officials finally persuaded the voters in a close second referendum to authorize the sale of the Greenwoods elementary school building based on their mistaken projected school enrollment. A year later they found that an increase in the number of elementary school students required additional school space. By not using the available land efficiently, the town government will have to confront the need for more school space soon as well as expansion space for the Town Hall.

In the meantime, local taxes are rising sharply as the bills come home to roost. The ability of officialdom to engage in such poor planning and also obstruct citizens from entering due challenges does have its limits. But many citizens wonder.

Some preservationists are trying to save Big Red or even move the building nearby for other municipal uses. But the wreckers are coming closer. If the officials demolish this large and valuable structure, the limits of their recklessness will no longer be so vague.

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