1/2012: The Penns Grove-Carney’s Point Regional School District has announced a decision to repair historic Penns Grove High School instead of replacing it. The board’s decision cites a number of factors, including local advocates who voiced opposition to the school’s demolition. PNJ salutes the people of Penns Grove that spoke out, and the leadership that has chosen to recognize these voices and the value of this landmark by selecting a creative, more sustainable approach to addressing their educational facility needs.
The civic buildings of a town are those which provide its center and define its heritage through their continued use and appreciation over many generations. Libraries, schools, town halls; these all set the predominant character of a traditional community. As unfocused contemporary development and sprawl continue to consume the landscape of New Jersey, the preservation of significant community and civic buildings has never been more important.
Penns Grove High School was built in 1935 as a PWA (Public Works Administration) project. This building has defined local education for the thousands of area students that have walked its halls. The structure is a two-story building with a “U” shaped plan, designed in the Classic Revival style prevalent during the Great Depression. Constructed of red brick masonry with a projecting tetrastyle portico of the Corinthian order, the building is appointed with limestone quoins, stringcourses, and entrances. Indeed, its classical form embodies the aspirations of the time as a “temple of education.”
Penns Grove High School was designed by Byron H. Edwards of the noted Philadelphia, and later Camden, the firm of Edwards & Green. The firm operated from 1928 to 1958 and was responsible for numerous schools, commercial buildings, post offices, banks, and courthouses, including The Cape May County Courthouse and the Camden Courthouse Annex.
The school is located at the intersection of two principal roads in Penns Grove, East Maple Avenue and Route 130, a major north-south New Jersey state highway. Along with the handsome classical aesthetic of the building, its setting on a slight rise at this important location contributes to the iconic nature of this building in the community. Noted graduates of the school include longtime New Jersey congressman William J. Hughes, actor Bruce Willis, and 1960 Olympic gold medalist, pole vaulter Don Bragg.
With the exception of new aluminum windows, which replaced the original 9 over 9 window units in the 1970s, the building exhibits a high degree of architectural integrity and is in good structural repair. The school has been expanded in the more recent past with a gymnasium and classroom additions on non-primary elevations.
The school building, which currently houses Penns Grove Middle School, is threatened with demolition. Throughout the fall of 2010, a local task force, the Community Action Committee, met with the objective to determine whether to rehabilitate the existing structure or to raze the building and construct a new school in its place. In November 2010, the committee voted to replace the building with a new structure. The decision was influenced by input from an architect, stating that the floors, walls, HVAC system and computer lab required extensive renovation and that it would be more expensive to modernize the building than to replace it. The new building project would cost an estimated $27 million, including approximately $8.3 million in funding from the State of New Jersey. It has been indicated that local tax rolls will be responsible for contributing the needed additional funding.
The decision to replace versus to preserve is a common dilemma, often fraught with polarization and misinformation. The determination needs to be based on a full understanding of the economic, environmental and cultural impacts the decision will have on the community. Historic school modernization projects across New Jersey and the U.S. have demonstrated that historic school buildings can accommodate 21st century educational needs. A new structure could never reproduce the level of quality in finishes and materials, both exterior, and interior, that the existing building provides. This community landmark is a window into the culture and history of Penns Grove and presents the opportunity for current and future students to better engage in and understand the legacy of their community.
Local advocates for modernization assert that demographics indicate a shrinking school population in the district. The overall need for more space should be further evaluated. If more space is indeed required, opportunities for expansion of the school with an appropriate addition should be thoroughly explored. To accurately determine the real costs of modernizing this building, an alternative study by one experienced in historic building rehabilitation should be undertaken. The associated financial plus environmental costs of demolition, carting and landfill must also be part of the economic analysis. Recycling, i.e. rehabbing and reusing, this building is a sound, sustainable action in line with an environmental policy that local municipalities should support, and from which students and the community at large could learn a great deal. Additionally, school modernization is an opportunity to secure a significant source of local jobs, as statistics prove that rehabilitation creates more jobs than does new construction.
Penns Grove High School is a significant local icon situated on a prominent site with a strong cultural bond with the many students who have attended the school over the decades, and a celebrated recognition in the community as a whole. Since the decision to replace the school was made public, a number of local residents and former graduates of the school have organized to urge the local school board to reconsider. PNJ similarly urges the Penns Grove- Carneys Point school board to continue the discussion that engages the larger community in its decision on this issue, and to thoroughly consider all of the economic, environmental and cultural impacts that would result from demolition and replacement of Penns Grove High School. There is much more to be gained than lost from this historic school’s modernization and continued use.
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