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Group looks at oldest schools

Harriet Lenfestey Plyler went to Plant High School. So did her children, cousins, husband and father. Her uncle was in the Class of 1930.

That helps explain Plyler's loyalty to one of Hillsborough's oldest and most prestigious public schools, but not her drive to restore its aging brick and mortar. For that, credit her longtime passion for historic preservation.

A volunteer with the non-profit Tampa Preservation Inc., Plyler, 46, works to maintain the city's heritage through its historic buildings and neighborhoods. Now, the group plans to study 48 Hillsborough public schools that are at least 50 years old. The study could lead to private and government grants to preserve the schools.

The effort comes at a time when the school district is pressed to stretch its construction dollars further, both to keep up with growth and development and to repair and renovate its aging structures.

It helps that the school official in charge of building and renovating schools is a fan of old buildings.

'"Old, I like it," said Jim Hamilton, assistant superintendent for operations. "I was a principal of an old school. My wife is a principal of an older school. I live in a neighborhood full of old stuff. But old, because you like it, is not necessarily a good reason to spend money."

Hamilton said he welcomes the preservation study because it would help school officials make decisions based on sound business reasons, rather than emotion.

Plyler is encouraged by Hamilton's receptive attitude because in the past, she said, "school officials perceived it was less expensive and less of a headache to just tear down the old school and build a new one somewhere else."

Tampa Preservation is working to raise the money it needs for a comprehensive study of the 48 schools, which include Plant, built in 1926; Wilson Middle, built in 1915; and Gorrie Elementary, built in 1899. Another 13 schools are at the 45-year mark, school records show.

Two professional architectural historians from outside Florida would rank the schools based on their historic and architectural significance. Some schools might warrant nomination for the National Register of Historic Places.

No other study like it is under way in Florida, a state official said.

"Most of the nominations I've seen have been piecemeal, and not a concerted effort to look at rehabilitation on such a wide scope," said Barbara Mattick, a specialist for the state's Bureau of Historic Preservation. Tampa Preservation's study, she said, "is the only really focused effort that I know about right now."

Jan Abell, a Tampa architect specializing in historic preservation, said it makes sense to save old buildings. A fellow in the American Institute of Architects, she has met with Hamilton and Plyler to discuss the preservation effort.

"I'm sort of appalled at the throwaway attitude we have in this country for everything from toasters to buildings," she said. "If it's old, let's buy a new one. But wait a minute. Why? Why not fix the old one?"

Of course, not all old buildings are worth saving. Such decisions are based on whether a building is associated with a significant event in history, a significant person, a distinctive type, period or method of construction or was the work of a master.

Abell was involved in the $1.3-million renovation of B.C. Graham Elementary School during the 1987-88 school year. A neo-classical building with brick and terra cotta details, the Tampa Heights school was constructed in 1922 by master architect M. Leo Elliott, whose other work includes Tampa City Hall and the Cuban Club in Ybor City.

"The splendor and the grandeur of his school fits in with the neighborhood," said Graham's assistant Principal, Dale Nelson. "It is an honor and privilege to work in a school that has a connection to the past."

That, in a nutshell, explains the passion to preserve.

"The schools we attended live in our memories as hallowed settings of our early lives, and stand through generations as public symbols of the importance of public education," Abell wrote in a report on historic schools.

Unfortunately, she added, "what was once . . . a proud part of our neighborhood all too often becomes a neglected and decaying old building."

Hillsborough is second to Dade in the number of aging public school buildings, state records show. Dade has 266 buildings built before 1900 and through 1949, while Hillsborough has 164. Next on the list are Duval and Palm Beach, with 101 and 84 buildings, respectively. Polk has 80; Pinellas, 64; Pasco, 16; Hernando, 10; and Citrus, 6.


old schools

Here is a list of Hillsborough's oldest active schools and the years they were constructed:

1899-1924: Gorrie (1899); Lee (1906); Lomax (1907); Carver (1909); Cork (1912); McLane, Springhead (1914); Mitchell, Oak Park, Wilson Middle (1915); Graham (1922); Burney-Simmons, Citrus Park, Lincoln, Sulphur Springs (1923); Wilson Elementary (1924); Ballast Point, Bryan (Tampa), DeSoto, Edison, MacFarlane, Roosevelt, Seminole, Washington (1925).

1926-1948: Broward, Bryan (Plant City), Cleveland, Jackson, Orange Grove, Plant, Tampa Bay Blvd., Twin Lakes, West Shore (1926); Franklin, Hillsborough, Kenly, Mango, West Tampa, Wimauma (1927); Shore (1928); Trapnell (1931); Pinecrest (1936); Turkey Creek (1938); Ruskin (1942); Lake Magdalene, Lutz (1946); Mendenhall, Palm River (1948).