Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Fall of Old Ravenna High

Sometime during 2012, the old Ravenna High School will likely be torn down if plans proceed as they are currently laid out.  The building has been vacant since mid 2010 after it was replaced by a new, $26 million building on North Chestnut Street.  Now, I know what some of you are thinking.  Why write about the old school building of Kent's biggest rival?  As much as I enjoy the sports rivalry between Roosevelt and Ravenna, as a historian and fan or architecture, I can also appreciate the history and character that the old Ravenna High School has, especially the original portion of the building, which opened in 1923.

Front of the original portion of "old" Ravenna High School, which opened in 1923.  I took this picture in 2009
The building at the corner of Clinton and East Main near downtown Ravenna is actually the 4th home of Ravenna High School (3rd permanent home).  The school was first housed in an old grocery store when it was established in 1858.  Like the original Kent High School, that was only temporary while Ravenna's new Union School building was finished.  That building opened in December 1859, about 10 years before Kent's Union School opened (March 1869).  A "union school" was simply a type of building that consolidated local school houses into one structure and allowed for the students to be separated by grade level.  The Ravenna Union School was the home of Ravenna High School until 1883 when a new high school building opened at the corner of Walnut Street and Bowery Street (now Highland Avenue).  It also housed 7th and 8th graders, which occurred at the original Roosevelt High School on several occasions.  An addition was built on the front of this building in 1910 and it still stands, though it is no longer used as a school.  The original part of the building was torn down in 1960.  By the early 1920s, enrollment growth necessitated construction of a larger building, which is the one most of us are familiar with.

Ticket booth at the entrance to the auditorium wing from Clinton Street
Ceiling above the entrance to the auditorium wing facing Clinton Street
Having attended school at the original Roosevelt High School (now Davey Elementary and known as Davey Middle School while I was there in the early 1990s), I had long wanted to see the inside of "old" Ravenna High School since I knew the two buildings were built at roughly the same time.  I finally did in 2010 when the Ravenna Schools hosted an open house of the old building just before they officially closed it.  What I found was a lot of similarities in the overall feel of the original sections of both Davey and Ravenna, but some big differences as well.  Construction on "old" Roosevelt (now Davey) began in May 1921 and finished just under a year later in May 1922.  Ravenna High School was started in August 1921 but was not completed for almost 2 years.  It was dedicated in August 1923.  I haven't been able to find out why it took so much longer to complete Ravenna High School.  The buildings are pretty much the same size and the site in Ravenna is mostly a level grade, while the Kent site is on the side of a hill, so it doesn't make sense.  In any case, the two schools have a similar feel to them, even though both have been modified extensively since they first opened.  I'm hopeful there will be one more walk-through before the building is finally razed.

Ravenna High School ca. 1923 when it was new.  The entrance visible on the right faces East Main and was covered up by the addition of Whittaker Hall in the late 1960s
The biggest difference between the two is their layouts.  Davey is 3 stories of classrooms with a partial basement, due to the building being on the side of a hill.  Old Ravenna High is also three stories, but it's confusing for visitors and new students because the main entrance is on the 2nd floor.  The building is also on a hill, but it's parallel to the hill rather than perpendicular like Davey is, so the bottom floor is slightly below ground level on the front of the school, while fully exposed on the back.  The other differences in the layout are the gym and auditoriums.  Both schools are largely symmetrical, but Ravenna High School is almost perfectly symmetrical from the outside, at least originally.  The only thing that keeps it from being perfectly symmetrical is the entrance to the auditorium from Clinton Street, which includes a porch and stairs.  There is no entrance for the opposite wing (which is the gym).  Davey is symmetrical up to the gym, which is slightly off-center, shifted to the east.  I'm not sure why that was made, though the original site plan from 1920 has the building completely symmetrical on the north-south axis of the center of North Prospect Street.  At Ravenna, the gym and auditorium were on each end of the building with the classrooms in the middle.  At Davey, the auditorium and gym are both in the middle of the building, but on the back, with the classrooms on the front.  The sites for each school are very different, with Ravenna High on a 5-acre block adjacent to downtown and Davey on a 10-acre site that, at the time, was the edge of Kent.  Kent nearly built the school on a lot similar to what Ravenna did before a firm from Columbia University recommended they not build on such a confined lot.  As a result, the Board took some more time to design a larger school and find a more suitable lot that could accommodate growth and campus with athletic facilities.  Ravenna, on the other hand, had to have athletic fields in other parts of town (old Gilchrist Stadium was located several blocks away) once the school had to be enlarged in the 1950s.  Only with the opening of their new high school in 2010 did Ravenna finally get a single, unified campus.

Aerial of Ravenna High School from the 1947 yearbook showing its symmetry.  The auditorium is in the wing on the right side of the building and the gym is in the wing on the left side.  A baseball diamond can be seen on the left, later to be occupied by the first addition to Ravenna High School, the Coll Annex in 1958.  
Aerial of "old" Roosevelt (now Davey) from the 1950 yearbook.  The long building in the back that is separate from the school is the vocational area, added in the late 1930s.  The symmetry of the front part of the building can be seen here with the auditorium the long part in the middle with the gym in the back.  For whatever reason, the gym does not match the symmetry of the building and is shifted slightly to the east (you are looking to the northwest in this picture).  The football field visible on the left was known as Bowers Field and was the home of the Roosevelt football team until 1970.  
The auditorium was an interesting bit of history for me.  The Ravenna Republican reported at the school's opening in 1923 that it had a "1,000 seat auditorium".  The auditorium at Davey, according to Karl Grismer's 1932 The History of Kent had 833 seats when it opened.  Today, the Davey Auditorium has about 500 seats, though the balcony no longer has any seats on it and the remaining seats have been modified with wider seats, reducing capacity, so 833 seems plausible in its original configuration.  1,000 seats in Ravenna's auditorium is simply not possible and can be attributed to a gross exaggeration or simply trying to make it look bigger (and thus, better) than it was (or a combination of both).  My mom and I counted 399 seats in that auditorium when we toured in 2010 with no sections having seats missing (like the Davey Auditorium balcony being totally void of seats).  While it is likely the original configuration had more seats than it does now (mostly because they were narrower with narrower aisles), there is not enough room in there for an additional 600 seats.  Despite the obvious that there is no way 1,000 seats could've ever been in that auditorium, it was repeated multiple times by the local newspaper and the Ravenna Schools themselves as the history of that building was discussed just prior to its closing.

Old Ravenna High School auditorium as seen from the stage.  Yeah, NO WAY there were EVER 1,000 seats there!  I would love to see an interior picture of this when it was new. 
Davey Auditorium in 2009 as seen from the stage
The original gyms in each building were also very similar, with Ravenna's simply a smaller version, but with a balcony that went completely around the gym where Davey's went around three sides but was much deeper.  Ravenna's "balcony" today looks more like a walking track (which is what is was mainly used for most recently), but old pictures show people sitting there for basketball games.  The estimate is about 200 people could fit in the gym for games, though in those days the basketball courts were smaller.  The Davey gym seated an estimated 300 people.  They gyms were similar enough that I mistakenly thought a picture of a basketball game was taken in the old gym at Davey and was actually at Ravenna.  The fact that it was in a Roosevelt yearbook AND a large banner that said "ROOSEVELT" was hanging off the balcony threw me off too, but sure enough, it was Ravenna's gym when I compared pictures I had of both.   

Can you see why I thought this was the gym at what is now Davey?  This is from the 1955 Roosevelt yearbook
Interior of the original gym at old Ravenna High in 2010 showing that yes, the picture above was taken in THIS room, not in Kent!
One cool feature of the original part of Ravenna High School is the skylights that line the hallway on the top floor.  They can be seen in the aerial picture above.  The idea was to have as much natural light as possible, so there were small class panels put in the floors to let that natural light flow down to the lower levels.  For the last few decades the skylights themselves have been covered up by the ceiling tiles in the school, a later modification used to bring heat costs down.  Unfortunately, the windows weren't exactly economical in terms of heating, so rather than modify them, they were just covered.  When I toured the building in 2010, some of the ceiling tiles were missing, so I could see the skylights.  I'm a big proponent of natural lighting (I HATE rooms that have no windows for no purpose!), so I thought that was a very cool feature.

There were two large additions to old Ravenna High, the first being the Coll Annex in 1958-59 and the other being Whittaker Hall in the late 1960s.  The Coll Annex was built north of the original building and housed a larger gym (which opened the same year that the original part of the current Roosevelt building did) and other classrooms like the band and choir rooms.  It is connected to the original building by way of a bridge on the top floor.  Whittaker Hall was a two-story addition of classrooms on the south side of the building and covered up the entrance to the original building for East Main (which is actually the school's address even though the main entrance faces Clinton Street).    

The gym in the Coll Annex, which opened in 1959.  I went to a few games in here, usually as a fan of the rival Rough Riders.  Sorry Ravens, but my best memory in here was in late 2000 or early 2001: Roosevelt 88, Ravenna 38.  What was funnier was the Record-Courier's headline the next day on the front page was simply "Roosevelt Over Ravenna, 88-38".   
Now, of course, the talk has been about the demolition of the building and why it couldn't be used for something else.  Once the new high school was approved, the old building's future was virtually sealed.  Because the state paid for most of the new building, the stipulation is that the old building cannot be renovated and used for a school, like making it a middle school.  This point was made very clear to voters at the time the bond issue was approved in 2006.  The line of thinking with that rule is that the state will help a district build a new building if the cost of renovating the old one is over a certain percentage of building new.  In the long run, it will be less costly to build new.  Since the old building is in bad enough shape to warrant replacement (verus renovation) and the district needs help to build new, then logic says there is no point keeping the old building for a school.  Included in the money the state offers are funds for demolition or the district can sell the building, which they tried to do.  While adapting an old school into something else is possible, it is also very expensive.  For a building the size of old Ravenna High, it's VERY expensive and time-consuming, so the only hope, really, is for someone to come forward that has a love of the building for whatever reasons, and more importantly, deep pockets.  You also need a person or group that needs the amount of space available in a building that size.  Remember, not only are there tons of classrooms, but two gyms and an auditorium.  Face it, large high school buildings really don't work well for anything except, well, being a high school.  Not only does the building need extensive renovation just to bring it up to code, remove asbestos, and fix other issues, but then it would need renovations to convert it to something else.  Apartments always seem to be popular re-uses for old schools, but that requires tons of new wiring and even more so plumbing.  Even using it for offices would need tons of work.

Dedication plaque
There was talk of separating the three sections of the building, but nothing came of it because even that option would require costly renovations.  On top of the logistical problems of converting a high school to something else, you also have much more of a time limit on deciding what to do with the building because it is publicly owned.  Many people were quoted as saying they didn't want old Ravenna High to become Ravenna's "old Kent Hotel".  The difference with the old hotel in Kent (which was recently sold and will finally be renovated) was that it was privately owned, so no tax dollars were being spent to maintain it even as it sat vacant and was a total eyesore.  The Ravenna Schools were spending somewhere around $12,000-$15,000 per month just to maintain a building they could no longer use.  When they tried selling it and later auctioning it off, no offers were worth anything close to the property's worth.  Basically, if they sold it for what they were being offered, they would've had to return the demolition money to the state, which was more than what they would get from the sale.  So, while it's sad from a historical perspective to lose a structure like this, it's not surprising at all, especially in an economy like we are experiencing and in a town the size of Ravenna, along with simple logistics.  If something similar happened in Kent with Roosevelt or Stanton, it's unlikely either building would be saved for a non-school use.  Bottom line is if the people of Ravenna really didn't want to lose the old high school, they wouldn't have approved a ballot issue that guaranteed it could no longer be used as a school.  There were previous bond issues that were rejected by voters that would've built a new high school and renovated the old one for use as a middle school.  In Kent, the only reason that "old" Roosevelt has been saved as a school is because Kent hasn't relied on state help for funding new buildings.  With the demolition of the old Ravenna High School building, the site will be much more marketable for redevelopment because it won't have a large three-story building on it that needs demolition or millions of dollars in renovations just to be viable.  Sometimes history has to give way to economics.

2010 view of the front entrance

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