Central High School pt. 3 (The James and Burns buildings)

/ Sunday, October 2, 2011 /
The James building.

You can find the first post about Central High School's Classical building here and the second post about the Practical Arts building here.

By the late 50s, Central high school was bulging at the seams with students again, riding the wave of the post-war baby boom. In 1960, the city made a shocking decision to build an entirely new school and Memorial High School was born on Manchester's south side among the numerous post-war style, single family homes behind South Willow St. In a big-picture way, it's important to recognize that this was when Manchester's commerce began seeping from downtown to South Willow St. changing the a major dynamic of life in the city.

There was a question of which Central students would remain and which would move to the new high school. The school board drew a line from Auburn that followed the east-bound rail line down to Valley St. and divided the east half of the city. The line has since represented the unofficial boundary between the inner city and the southern side of Manchester.

A student zoning map for Central, West and Memorial high schools.

Despite Memorial's construction, Central was still suffering from overcrowding and maintenance issues. A negative report from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges in 1963 cited a laundry list of complaints about the school, mainly that the buildings were "ancient" with antiquated facilities and the school relied almost completely on a homegrown faculty and staff. The report was a catalyst for much debate and the city argued whether or not to build an entirely new school. A piece of land was prospected in the Wellington Road area for a large high school but in the end the city decided to make piecemeal with the addition of the James building.

The intersection at Concord and Ash street was closed off and the James building, along with grass courtyard, were built over the roads. Despite the new building and yard, students and faculty would often arrive in the morning to find tire tracks stretching the length of the where Concord street had been.

A satellite view of Central High School via Google Maps. The red path highlight where Concord and Ash streets used to intersect prior to the James building's construction. 

The James building presents a skeletal and utilitarian look, a style called "International" that was popular between the 40s and 80s. It was connected to the Classical building by a series of walkways and housed a completely new oil-fired steam heating system. Several other renovations took place, including the roofing over of the ruined observatory and many of the school's facilities were shuffled around. It wasn't until the 80s that Central would replace the grass courtyard with concrete, a decision I'm usually sad to see, but in this case praise, as it links the school together nicely.

Almost 40 years later, stemming a rising enrollment again, the Burns building (named after William Burns, a principal of Central for 25 years and the author of the text I've pulling most of this research from) was built along the East end of the school, connecting at the Classical and James building junction. The project cost $30 million and was coupled with the construction of an underground parking garage. The facade of the Burns building embodies a mish-mash futurist and international style architecture.

The Burns building built in 2003.

Looking from one building to the other, you can trace a lengthy segment of Manchester's history and the zeitgeists of the times. The Classical building was built in a time of economic prosperity and the city needed a school it could be proud of, the result was a truly unique looking building of several combined styles. The Practical Arts building straddled the modern era with its bland brick and flat design, while still clinging to post-revolutionary America's ancient Greek love affair with its neo-classical columns. The James building is a true product of more latter-day city government attitudes of get'er done cheap and quick. And the Burns building with its alien, shiny stainless-steel facade yells that the city is looking to the future again with a certain sense of pride, ready align itself with the children's and community's best interests.

It would be wonderful to see a drafting teacher at Central teach a rigorous course in architecture, giving students pattern books to draw from and simple buildings to copy into 45 degree angle sketches. On the Monday dawning the last fortnight of school, the students would arrive at their drafting classroom to find all of their slanted, drawing desks missing. The teacher would walk them out of the school, on a warm spring day, into the sunny court yard. There the desks would sit. "Pick a building. You have two weeks to measure it and draw it. This is your final and it counts for 20% of your grade," the instructor would say.

Sadly, the Manchester school system no longer teaches drafting.

Special thanks to Mike Hennessy, a history teacher at Central High School, who lent me the William Burns text, "Sesquicentennial History: Manchester High School - Central 1846-1996" and the Manchester Historical Association's help in answering my questions.

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