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Historic, asbestos-plagued Schenley deserves reprieve and makeover

By Patricia Lowry,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Close Schenley High School? He can’t be serious.

And move the Schenley students to Reizenstein? He must be joking.

He wasn’t. On Nov. 9, the shocking news was that Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt would close the storied school that looks like a Greek temple and move Schenley students and staff to the one that looks like a prison. He didn’t put it quite that way.

Shouldn’t this be a no-brainer? Isn’t Schenley the school with the fabled, historic neighborhood, the proud heritage, the great building? Isn’t Reizenstein the school that’s walled off from its neighbors and in a 1970s building that only its architects could love?

But such decisions aren’t made on looks and location alone. Schenley has asbestos issues. It’s embedded in the plaster walls and ceiling, the pipe coverings and the floor tiles, and estimates for removing it and upgrading the mechanical systems came in at $55.7 million and $86.9 million.

The good news is that Roosevelt kept an open mind and listened to Schenley supporters who want to keep the school where it is. He formed an independent task force to study the issue. That committee got a more detailed, room-by-room estimate from a third architectural firm, Astorino, which believes the job can be done for considerably less — about $32 million to address the major problems and $62 million for a full-scale renovation. For now, closing Schenley is off the table, until the task force comes up with a recommendation.

Here’s hoping the committee sees the school for what it is: a tremendous asset in which taxpayers have made a hefty economic investment, $1.48 million for the land, building and equipment, and another $9.4 million for the 1985 addition, which added a new pool and a gymnasium. That’s a total of more than $43 million in 2006 dollars, a fraction of what it would cost to assemble the land and erect such a building in that neighborhood today. But thanks to the foresight of an earlier Board of Education, it’s already there. All this one has to do is take care of it.

In fact, the board has been maintaining Schenley, commissioning and installing custom replacement windows approved by the Historic Review Commission, putting in a new science lab and new seats in the auditorium and making repairs as needed. But it’s clear from a tour of the building last week that Schenley still needs a lot of work.

Major upgrades to the heating and electrical systems have been delayed because they can’t be done piecemeal due to asbestos. The building’s natural ventilation system was shut down 10 years ago because the ducts that bring fresh air to each room are lined with asbestos. Every time even minor repairs or improvements are done, the asbestos abatement contractor must be called in along with the plumber or electrician, escalating the cost. That new $600,000 science lab cost twice what it should have because of asbestos abatement, said my school district tour guides, construction chief and architect Vidyadhar S. Patil and environmental specialist Robert J. Kennedy Jr. And while Schenley has a computer lab, asbestos has left the school unable to reach its goal of about a dozen computers in each classroom.

Although Kennedy’s monthly inspections make sure no asbestos has been exposed inside the building, Schenley looks tired and worn in places. But the structure of this steel and concrete school, which rests on 1,700 concrete pilings, is sound.

Moreover, Schenley has some important assets Reizenstein Middle School lacks: a landmark Classical Revival building with a monumental entrance, a culturally rich neighborhood of museums and universities and a strong visual connection to that neighborhood.

The triangle-shaped building was designed so that each of the classrooms that line the perimeter has an abundance of natural light. So do the corridors, which face interior courtyards flanking the central auditorium, but it’s the classrooms that get the views.

Some may argue that a view is a distraction. That seems to have been the opinion of Reizenstein’s designers, who placed a ribbon of clerestory windows around the first floor of the building that give minimal natural light and no view of anything but clouds and sky. The second-floor windows, hidden behind overhangs, are even worse.

I would argue that natural light is essential to well-being and that the view, especially the one from Schenley, is inspirational. It helps students understand and bond with their community. Almost 40 years ago, I was a student teacher at Schenley, in the art room located in one of the building’s elbows. From that hillside perch, we had a commanding, panoramic view of Oakland, which spread out below us like a 3-D map.

To understand what an important building Schenley was when it opened, you have to go back a little further.

Schenley was the first high school built after the state assembly reorganized the Pennsylvania school system, creating central boards of education that no longer had to share power with local ward school boards. That made bigger, better school buildings possible, with more amenities such as auditoriums, libraries, science labs, art and music rooms and swimming pools.

Schenley was the first high school in the country that cost more than $1 million to build, a distinction trumpeted in local newspapers along with its status as one of the top 10 high school buildings in the country.

Schenley’s architect was Edward Stotz, who, in answering the call for a building with minimal ornamentation, also provided one with maximum dignity, faced in Indiana limestone and with a projecting, columned entrance that communicates that the act of entering the school is of some significance. The spare treatment continues inside, along with the elegant materials: Corridor floors are terrazzo, and the stairs are white marble. When the building was new, reproductions of famous paintings and buildings lined the walls, turning the halls into galleries. Today the hall walls are too bare, and while one of alumnus Andy Warhol’s report cards is in a glass case (he got straight A’s), there are no reproductions of his work hanging about.

Stotz apprenticed with local architects before spending the year of 1889, when he was 21, studying and sketching in Europe. He was 48 when Schenley opened, and he seems to have regarded it as his best work. A 1922 biographical reference mentions his most prominent buildings, including Colfax School, Fifth Avenue and South Side high schools, “and the most beautiful of all, the Schenley high school.” The firm he founded, now known as MacLachlan, Cornelius & Filoni, designed Downtown’s new Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts.

If Schenley moves to Reizenstein, the district would spend about $15 million to upgrade science labs, build an auditorium where the defunct tennis courts are and improve the lighting.

A better option, and one also being considered, is moving Schenley students and staff to Reizenstein for a year while Schenley is upgraded. If the district applied that $15 million toward the $32 million cost of renovating Schenley, it would be almost halfway there.

Protected by city historic status, Schenley is in no danger of being torn down, and the building still would have an educational use if the district sells it to the University of Pittsburgh, one potential buyer. But Schenley’s highly successful magnet program, which provides a variety of educational opportunities in a racially diverse setting, deserves to keep blooming where it was planted. Even in these pragmatic days, that should count for something.

(Architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at or 412-263-1590.)

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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