Montessori school renovates 1840s home with a rich history

November 15, 2014

141110Montessori0099Calleigh Kolasa, 13, left, Maya Pemble, 12, top right, and Gus Glasscock, 13, trim blackberry bushes outside Providence Montessori Middle School, now located in an 1840s house that for 119 years was the Florence Crittenton Home for unwed mothers. The school uses agriculture to teach everything from science to entrepreneurship. Photos by Tom Eblen

When the House of Mercy opened in 1894, the secluded old home at 519 West Fourth Street seemed like a good place to help “fallen” women. It was in an out-of-the-way part of town, near what was then called the Eastern Kentucky Lunatic Asylum.

What became the Florence Crittenton Home did a lot to help pregnant girls and young mothers with infants for 119 years until last November, when changing state social-work policies forced it to close for lack of funds.

Over the past couple of years, that out-of-the-way neighborhood has been experiencing a rebirth, with a heavy emphasis on education.

The former site of what is now called Eastern State Hospital is becoming the campus of Bluegrass Community and Technical College. Transylvania University has turned an old industrial strip into an athletics complex.

So it is fitting that the old House of Mercy, a handsome brick home that dates to around the 1840s, has been beautifully transformed for a new life as Providence Montessori Middle School.

The school recently completed an extensive renovation, accomplished quickly so fall-term classes could begin. The result will be on display from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday during a public open house. The presidents of Transylvania and BCTC are scheduled to attend.

“This summer was a blur,” said Vivian Langefeld, the Montessori school’s director. “We worked day and night.”

Despite a higher offer from Transylvania, the Florence Crittenton Home board last March sold the 2.5-acre property to the Montessori school for $400,100 — well below market value — to make sure the historic structure wasn’t demolished.

With a combination of donations, fundraising and loans, the school did an extensive renovation led by Matthew Brooks, a principal in the Lexington architecture firm Alt32, and Chip Crawford and Drew McLellan of Crawford Builders. Their work recently earned a Community Preservation Award from the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation.

“It would have been a shame to have lost this place,” Langefeld said.

In addition to the tight schedule, Brooks said the biggest challenge was opening up space and light in the building, which had been added to three times since the late 1800s, without compromising structural integrity. The school’s requirement for big, open spaces was much different from the many small rooms the Crittenton Home needed.

Old carpets were pulled up and hardwood floors, including many of the original poplar planks, were restored. Original fireplaces were kept and structural brick was exposed on many interior walls to add to the charm.

Alt32’s staff also designed and built the school’s furniture and lockers from birch plywood, using a high-tech router capable of precisely replicating intricate shapes.

Brooks had a special interest in the project: his daughter will be a student there next year. He said the light-filled space now reminds him of Lexington’s original Montessori school in the St. Peter Claver Catholic Church Parish Hall down the street, where he attended kindergarten in 1972. (In another bit of neighborhood improvement, the church is now restoring and building an addition to that hall.)

In Montessori schools, children learn by doing in an environment with a lot of freedom and self-direction. This school, which has 38 students in 7th and 8th grades, uses small-scale urban agriculture as a vehicle for teaching everything from science to entrepreneurship.

Langefeld said the next step will be to fill the campus grounds with vegetable gardens, rain gardens, berry bushes and fruit trees. Chicken coops and beehives will be added in the spring so students can care for them and sell the eggs and honey.

“We do an entrepreneurial program where they all learn about supply and demand, profit and loss and so forth,” she said.

The house came with a good commercial kitchen, which students use for baking products to sell and fixing their own lunch once a week. A large room on the back will be turned into a shop with woodworking tools.

The school also hopes to develop cooperative programs with Transylvania and BCTC, and to engage residents and businesses in the surrounding neighborhood.

“Montessori’s vision for the adolescent was a non-institutional setting,” Langefeld said. “So this is perfect for that kind of environment, where it feels like they are more a part of a community.”

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Changing the face of northwest Lexington

July 13, 2009

Conversion of the Eastern State Hospital property into the new campus of Bluegrass Community and Technical College is perhaps Lexington’s most important urban redevelopment project in decades.

So it is good to see that the people running this project seem to be serious about doing it right.

BCTC President Augusta Julian assembled a strong planning team that has been working for months in consultation with a diverse group of specialists and stakeholders. Now, you can have your say.

Officials will hold a public forum to seek comments on the campus master plan at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the North Lexington YMCA at 381 West Loudon Avenue.

“We have made every effort to talk to everyone,” said Stan Harvey, a principal in the design firm Urban Collage. “Even though we’ve come a long way, it’s early enough in the process that it can still be refined.”

A second public hearing will be scheduled in the fall, when the site plan is near completion.

The project was made possible by a brilliant land swap announced last year: Eastern State, one of the nation’s oldest hospitals, will get a new facility on the University of Kentucky‘s Coldstream property on Newtown Pike. BCTC will get a new campus on the Eastern State property. UK will get BCTC’s Cooper Drive campus for future expansion.

The new BCTC campus will be a landmark project for several reasons.

For one thing, it is a rare opportunity to build a new college campus for an institution experiencing huge growth and rapid change to meet the needs of Kentucky’s 21st-century economy. Julian sees the possibility that enrollment could double from the current 12,000 students within a decade.

But the planning team wanted to avoid the classic commuter-school design — an island of buildings surrounded by a sea of surface parking. The plan calls for more than 60 percent of parking to be in structures along railroad tracks, with surface lots concentrated near the “back” of the campus along Loudon Avenue.

Morgan McIlwain, of M2D Design Group landscape architects, said a lot of thought was given to how to integrate mass transit into the plan, as well as bicycle and pedestrian access. Officials plan to incorporate into the campus a part of the proposed Legacy Trail — a bike and pedestrian trail that ultimately will link downtown Lexington to the Kentucky Horse Park.

The planning team also realized that the campus will have a huge impact on redevelopment of the surrounding area, which includes the YMCA, Lexmark and Coolivan Park.

The team estimates that 88 acres of surrounding property is now either vacant or “underutilized.” Much of it is old industrial land that Harvey hopes can be rezoned for high-density residential, commercial and other private developments that he expects to grow up around the campus.

A lot of thought has been put into Fourth Street, which will connect the campus to nearby Transylvania University, and Newtown Pike, the extension of which will connect it back to UK and the Cooper Drive campus.

The 48-acre Eastern State site, which has been closed to the public since the hospital began operations there in 1816, was something of a mystery. When Loudon Avenue was extended many years ago, workers discovered 4,500 graves that were reburied there in an area that will be maintained as a cemetery.

The planning team has worked for months with the Kentucky Heritage Council and others to survey the site. Surprisingly, no more graves have been found, Harvey said.

The team is recommending the renovation and reuse of four of the dozen buildings now on the site. Those include the white-columned administration building, the hospital’s most recognizable structure, and an architecturally significant 1906 “laundry” building.

But it turns out that the most historic feature of the property is the front lawn, whose design has essentially been unchanged since 1816. McIlwain said the lawn will be preserved, as well as the relationship of buildings to Fourth Street and Newtown Pike.

Plans call for the campus to eventually have about 14 buildings of three to five stories, with a total investment exceeding $500 million over two decades. A new state law will require construction to adhere to “green” building standards. That could include roof gardens and water-permeable paving.

In addition to Urban Collage and M2D, the project team includes two other top local firms: EOP Architects and Staggs and Fisher engineering. International firms on the team include Perkins + Will, which specializes in campus design, and HDR civil engineers.

The new BCTC campus will change the face of northwest Lexington. Now’s the time to have your say about what that face should look like.