A Tale of Two Schools (and Charles)

An enormous banner hangs above the freeway near my house: Keep All Our Schools Open. Nearby, tents are set up outside a school that has been slated to close. Families are staked out in grief, frustration and desperation, wishing they could stop the tide of budget cuts that have taken their toll on this town since people voted, thirty-five years ago, to pay fewer taxes.

The school district is caught in a bind. With less money for teachers, their services dropped, and parents who could left the schools. With fewer students, the money was spread too thin. To keep all schools from going under, they have to close a handful. A handful of beauties, like Lakeview School, an Art Deco gem that predates the highway that practically climbs over it.

School populations wax and wane with the generations. These sturdy and buildings have a lifespan that is often too short. Of course, schools are more than buildings; they are communities of people traveling through time together. Young teachers do their best to help the children of young families. These teachers will grow older and the students will grow up. The parents will go on to be active at other schools. Principals come and go. The building abides.

There was an old school building in Denver that met such a fate back in the 1970s. Built in 1902, Byers School saw five generations pass through its old doors, each one leaving the building marked and scarred with their passing.

In the 1980s a creative developer named Charles Nash saw something in this forgotten place and turned it into condominiums. I worked for him on my summer vacation; my whole family did. While my mother worked as his business assistant, her three teenagers swept out debris, caulked cracks, washed walls. We tore out broken linoleum and found wood floors underneath. We blistered off and sanded down a quarter inch of paint to reveal wood paneling, including some initials scratched into the wood by a penknife while waiting for the principal.

Charles designed each unit with a reverence for the history that was in his hands. He polished the wood floors back to life. He laquered the carvings in place. He left the green chalkboards exposed, with an eraser and some chalk in each tray. He recognized my artistic talents and put me in charge of giving a rescued carousel horse a makeover, for the front lobby.

Lakeview School is Occupied, capital O, a new hotspot for righteous anger at the carelessness with which the super-duper-rich make decisions that benefit themselves and leave children to the brutal tides of fate. Charles was rich, not one-percent rich, but well-off, successful, and generous. Over the years he became part of our family and was always generous with us, helping with college, with celebrations, and one summer, plane tickets to Europe. He lived elegantly, but not lavishly, his strivings toward beauty, not power.

In addition to Byers School and the dozens of old houses he renovated, Charles turned an abandoned church into homes as well (as time changes, churches are going the way of public schools), and his life's achievment was restoring a decrepit hot springs in the Rockies (and possibly haunted—my mother-in-law saw a body in the pool when she went for swimming lessons there as a child) into a gorgeous retreat and sought-after spa. He could see the potential in a place lost and unloved. He could see beauty in his mind's eye where others saw rust stains and mold. And he could call that beauty forth with a little time, effort, elbow-grease, and team building.

Typically, I would be focusing on education crisis here, but I'm filled with memories of an old friend who taught me to be a preservationist. Charles died somewhat tragically last week, and we will miss him. My brother, who bonded to him most deeply of all, lost a father. There are thousands who see Charles' sculptures and sit by his fountains and scribble on his chalkboards and sit in the spot on their carpet where colored light comes through the stained glass, who will never know the person who saw them doing so long before they did.

I wish the world had a thousand Charleses, who could see broken spaces and hopeless cases and intervene with powerful whimsy. I wish there were someone with the imagination to see Lakeview School, and Maxwell Park School, and Lazear, Marshall, and Santa Fe... and all the schools closing across the country... as living and evolving things. I feel pain for the families of Lakeview, whose love for their community is not strong enough to keep things stable. I admire their actions, which will teach such an amazing lesson to their children, whether they succeed or fail. Life is full of change, of loss, and surprises, not all of them good.

All in all, I dream of good architecture —both material and financial—that understands this. To have good architects, you need good education, and  you need a place for everything. Down the road I dream of Lakeview as a new place of learning, a community center near a restored vintage theater and a vibrant park, where people live or stay for a while in rooms with chalkboards, where people learn new things, find new strengths in themselves, and make new friends.