By Connor Rempe
Carl Wagner, age 49, graduated Arlington High School in the year 1987. Ronald Reagan held the Presidency, Full House debuted on TV, and baggy “MC Hammer” pants flew off of department store shelves. Things are different now, but one thing has remains the same: the iconic facade of Arlington High’s Collumb house. It is something that Wagner and his group, “Save Our Historic AHS”, want to see preserved long into the future.
AHS alum asks of building committee, can we be doing better?
SOHAHS was founded by Mr. Wagner and a handful of other town members and architects, many of whom had written to the Arlington Advocate in opposition to the Building Committee’s plan to tear down the existing school. The groups purpose, as Wagner made clear, is not to oppose the updating of the school but rather “as opposition to the current project,” as a means “to support the schools and to continue to support Arlington High in a way we think is better for Arlington.”
In the early stages of the building project, Wagner was happy with the process of the committee. Based on public opinion the group outlined three priorities for the new school: budget, minimizing disruption of education, and maintaining historical spaces. Mr. Wagner attended committee meetings as the group whittled down the options from eight to three, seemingly keeping in mind these three pillars along the way. Two of the options maintained the historic facade while the third, instead, built the school on the current front lawn.
The group then sent the three options to the public to get their opinion. The survey found that most people favored the third option, knocking the building down and starting over. However, Wagner found that the amount of people that voted for options that preserved the school dwarfed those that voted for the third option. Considering that one of the three pillars of the committee was to maintain historical facades Wagner had faith that they too would see this trend.
However, on June 26th, the Building Committee voted to proceed with the third option and knock down the existing structure. Wagner and his group were shocked: “We felt as if the Building committee had sort of been stringing us along.” The group immediately started writing letters to the governor, the Massachusetts Historical Commission, and the Massachusetts School Building Authority, trying to let them know what was happening. They created a website to try and spread the word and started a petition that now has more than 300 signatures. Wagner and his group even protested near the building committee’s booth at Arlington’s Town Day, handing out flyers and speaking to citizens about the new project.
“Almost everybody we spoke to was shocked,” said Wagner. “We got about 30 more signatures to our petition in person and many more online.” The protestors were asked to leave by the building committee but protestors explained they were practicing their first amendment rights .
Why care about this?
Even Wagner himself admits that as a student he would’ve wanted to “burn the place to the ground.” However, the average household stands to pay about $800 to $1000 more in taxes each year for the next thirty years. While Wagner insists that his group members are not fiscal conservatives and do want to see the school remodeled, they do think we can be doing better. “The bar for destroying public spaces must be set high,” Wagner said.
The Collumb house building was designed in 1932 during an era of fervour and vitality . Drawing inspiration from this excitement, the architect modeled the building after the current state house and the iconic clock tower after the old state house.
“They picked up the spirit of the American revolution and put it in there,” said Wagner. “You won’t be able to capture that in any modern building.” Wagner mentioned the newly remodeled Thompson school, done by the same architects hired to do the new high school: “It’s a fine school, but it will never be on par with this in terms of the feeling of history.”
Wagner is concerned that the town stands to forget its past and what made Arlington great in the new building. He fears that a modern structure “will lose a lot of what America stood for and still stands for, it will say let’s forget about Arlington as a town and look forward to Arlington as a city”
SOHAHS is not only concerned with the facade of the building but also the front lawn area which it said is “the largest green space on Mass. Ave. from Lexington to Cambridge.” Not only will green space be lost but also the front drop off area, which is used for things like car washes, will be gone as well.
Instead, the building committee plans to build a two-lane road that will loop all the way around to what is now the back of the school and use that as a new drop-off location. Wagner says the road will cost millions and cause traffic on Mass. Ave., Mill Street, and Grove Street. The town also plans to turn the upper grass fields into a parking lot for the DPW that will be accessible to students.
All of this, said agner, will cost a massive amount of money and result in what he estimates to be a loss of three quarters of the front lawn.
While Carl Wagner and SOHAHS are in favor of rebuilding Arlington High School, they are worried that the town will not make the new building into something that the people want; something that honors Arlington’s historic past while maintaining functionality for a bright future.
“We’re better than this,” says Wagner. “To lose the facades that are so beautiful , to lose the land, and to loose the drop off which will result in traffic mess, is really beneath us.”