The Planning Board convened a special meeting Wednesday, January 14, starting at 8:15 am in the first-floor north meeting room at Town Hall, to review preliminary plans for Devotion School expansion and renovation. Present for HMFH Architects of Cambridge were Philip “Pip” Lewis, architect for the project, and Deborah Kahn.
The previous evening, the Building Commission had reviewed the plans in a meeting starting at 6:00 pm in the fourth-floor conference room at Town Hall, with Mr. Lewis and George Metzger of HMFH. Attendance was slim, with four members of the public and three members of town staff at Planning and with two members of the School Committee and three members of town staff at Building. Daniel Bennett, the building commissioner, was at both.
Site plans: Preliminary plans for Devotion School are being developed from Option 1 of concept plans, presented at a public hearing in September and subsequently chosen by the Devotion School Building Committee. The historic center building, opened in 1915, is to be preserved. The south wing toward Babcock St. and the gymnasium areas, opened in 1955, and the north wing along Stedman St. and the library areas, opened in 1976, are both to be replaced.
As compared with last September’s concept plans, the new north and south wings are narrower and longer. They remain mostly two stories, with a ground floor of accessory space along Stedman St. away from Harvard St. and an underground parking structure along Stedman St. toward Harvard St. While there are greater setbacks than shown in September from Stedman St. and from adjacent properties along Babcock St., the new wings now extend farther into the front and rear of the schoolyard.
Plans for the school site do not affect the Town of Brookline tennis courts adjoining at the rear, nestled between properties on Babcock St., Devotion St. and Stedman St. They do reduce the hardtop basketball area in the back, along Stedman St., from three full courts to two, and they replace the junior-size baseball field, between the current building and the basketball area, with a full-size soccer field. Both the new soccer field and the new basketball courts are next to landscaped areas along Stedman St. that could include seating.
As compared with the current site, the preliminary plans move most children’s play areas behind the building, away from Harvard St. The wings of the new building extend about 50 ft toward Harvard St. beyond the historic Devotion House–dating from 1686–on both sides. By comparison, the Harvard St. face of the current north wing is set back from the front of the Devotion House about 60 ft, with a concrete plaza over underground parking, and the Harvard St. face of the current south wing extends about 20 ft past the Devotion House.
A children’s play area, intended for community use, remains near Harvard St. on the south side, but it is only about half the size of the current one. A sitting area, also intended for community use, remains near Harvard St. on the north side, at the corner of Stedman St. It is about the same size as the one installed during the 1990s. The front lawn between the Devotion House and Harvard St. remains unchanged.
Entrances and interiors: On the site plan, one sees fewer building entrances. It shows no equivalent to the current, community-friendly front entrance from the plaza on the north side and no equivalent to the current, child-friendly entrance at the Harvard St. end of the current south wing. A rear entrance from the play fields is maintained. An oddly located new entrance appears on Stedman St., at the ground level below the main interior levels, where now there is just a brick wall.
The formal front stairs entering the historic 1915 center building are to remain, but the building stands at risk of being disfigured through adding ramps. The current plaza entrance, at the corner between the center building and the current north wing, has provided front handicapped access in a way more respectful of nearby neighborhoods and of community history than the new plans. A so-called “urban room” near the historic front entrance proved a non-starter with members of the Planning Board and the Building Commission. No one stood up for it.
The preliminary plan for the first floor shows kindergarten through second grade in the new north wing, along Stedman St., moved from the historic site in the south wing. That had replaced the original Devotion Primary School, opened in 1892. The new rooms are the ones closest to the new entrance planned along Stedman St. Rooms for third through fifth grade appear in the new south wing, toward Babcock St., which lacks an entrance.
A central corridor is shown extending from the front of the first floor of the historic central building, to be double-height between the new library and main gymnasium spaces, reaching a stairwell at the rear to the ground floor and to an entrance off the rear play fields. Rooms for pre-kindergarten, a cafeteria and gymnasium spaces are located on the ground floor.
Like the current library, gymnasium and cafeteria spaces, those for new ones are behind the central building. The new library extends from the first floor, while new gymnasium and cafeteria spaces extend from the ground floor. Those areas are to be double-height with large windows, facing mostly toward the geographic northeast.
The preliminary plan for the second floor shows sixth, seventh and eighth grade classrooms in the new south wing, toward Babcock St.–displaced out of their historic sites in the original Devotion Grammar School, opened in 1898, extending down Stedman St. from the corner of Harvard and Stedman Sts. Atop new gymnasium space are extra-height spaces for a “multipurpose room” with a raised stage. (Under state protocols, politically incorrect to call them an “auditorium,” gratis ex-Gov. Patrick.)
Above the rooms for kindergarten through second grade in the new north wing are to be special-purpose rooms for science, languages, art and music. Many former, special-purpose areas for these activities have recently been lost in a cascade of compression to provide classrooms for increased enrollment.
Unlike the current north wing, opened in 1976, the new one shows no provisions for woodshop or home economics. Those longstanding parts of the elementary school curriculum vanished during the 1980s, after enactment of Proposition 2-1/2 led to major budget cuts. There are, however, plans for “technology classrooms” adjacent to the new library on both the first and second floors–having no counterparts in the former curriculum.
Exterior: Plans for the building exterior remain in flux. Three options have been presented to the Planning Board, the Building Commission and the Devotion School Building Committee. Members of the Planning Board and the Building Commission called for changes. Linda Hamlin, an architect who chairs the Planning Board, found none of the options satisfactory. George Cole, a member of the Building Commission, questioned the fairly narrow entrance from Stedman St.–expected to become the most popular access route for students, staff and parents.
At both Planning and Building reviews, there were repeated calls from several participants to simplify the exterior designs and reduce or eliminate costly accessories, including large roof “monitors” above the art rooms and movable sunshades along Stedman St. Sergio Modigliani, an architect and a member of the Planning Board, said all options presented lacked a consistent “architectural vocabulary” for the exterior, instead showing a hodge-podge of materials and patterns.
The side and rear entrances are not well delineated in some options. Mr. Modigliani said HMFH ought to “celebrate” the rear entrance onto the play fields rather than hide it. When plans are marked up for public reviews, Planning Board members said they needed to be simplified–calling out administrative and support spaces, for example, rather than about 30 categories as they did at this week’s reviews.
Corners joining the historic central building with the new wings were criticized. Plans show ostentatious glass towers in the front, labeled as “outdoor classrooms.” No evidence was cited showing that substantial extra costs of those features have been justified by comparable educational values. Plans also show a rear “outdoor classroom,” essentially a deck over the roof of the cafeteria space and two kindergartens. Ms. Hamlin reacted to its appearance in one of the options, saying it could suggest a prison exercise yard.
Unlike the costly and trouble-prone designs for the third Pierce School in 1970, plans for the third Devotion School in 2015 do not call for air conditioning. As Mr. Lewis of HMFH put it at the Planning review, “We don’t want another Newton North.” He described “displacement ventilation with dehumidification” that he said would provide an economical and satisfactory building. Plans show penthouses toward the rear of the north and south wing roofs but leave large areas of roof space unobstructed for solar panels.
– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, January 18, 2015
Devotion School Building Committee, Town of Brookline, MA
HMFH Architects, Preliminary plans for Devotion School, January 16, 2015, Town of Brookline, MA
Craig Bolon, School enrollment: no room in the inn, Brookline Beacon, December 26, 2014
Devotion School Building Committee: designs and controversies, Brookline Beacon, September 11, 2014
HMFH Architects, Concept plans for Devotion School, September 10, 2014, Town of Brookline, MA