Mount Pleasant High School

A rare “Collegiate Gothic”-style high school faces potential demolition as educators and the public struggle with the complex emotions surrounding a quality public education

About this Property

Reason for Demolition

Providence schools have many problems, and the buildings are one of them. From Rhode Island Department of Education’s (RIDE) own data, only 5% of school buildings can be considered “high-quality learning spaces”1. This is why they plan to invest over $600M on new facilities in the coming years.2

While we can debate exactly what a “high-quality learning space” is, we can not debate that the schools have been only lightly maintained. The lack of proper temperature control, for example, forced schools to close in September — a month that has started to feel more like part of summer. Mount Pleasant was one of the schools that closed due to heat.3

These buildings can be thick, dark spaces that resemble bunkers more than what we’d like a school to be. But they can also be heightened spaces like this one, where the architecture resembles an ivy league institution and therefore makes a student feel worthy and important. Would a shiny new building that looks out of date in a decade do the same?

Part of the problem with the school’s is the way the administration runs them. The lack of communication from RIDE and the Providence Public School Department (PPSD) while decisions were being made and plans being floated to the public about the future of Mt. Pleasant High School frustrated many parents, teachers, and constituents.

Generally, neighbors and teachers were frustrated by the lack of details in proposals to replace the building. What would the interior design of the school look like? What classroom sizes would be supported? What was the target class size? What specific improvements would a new building provide that would be difficult or expensive to get from a renovation? How were the estimates for replacement vs. renovation calculated?4

The quick timeline for reaching a decision added to frustrations. The quickness by which decisions would be made, and therefore the limitation of public comment periods, made everyone feel as though the decision was already final, and any public discussion was just an inconvenient formality. The way in which PPSD followed patterns of “demolition by neglect” by disinvesting in schools before announcing their closure added to suspicions and distrust.

In a Providence Journal article, it was noted that PPSD slashed maintenance funding to schools long before they announced their closure. Another large school, Carl Lauro Elementary on the West Side, had its funding cut from $28.3 million to just over $409,000 before it was announced it would close.5

At the time of the article (February 2023), Mt. Pleasant High School was not scheduled to close. And yet its budget for physical improvements was cut from $29.1 million to only $3.6 million6 (an 87.63% decrease). Only a few months later did PPSD start to talk about replacing the school completely. It seems that PPSD determines the fate of these schools long before the public is told.

When pressed for reasoning, PPSD Deputy Superintendent of Operations Zack Scott said “the funding that we have available for school construction has increased and changed dramatically five times since 2019, which is great, but each time it happens, it causes you to reprioritize.”7 While some schools saw less funding, others saw more.

And yet the pattern of disinvestment is clear. When you have already made the decision to replace a building, why invest in its maintenance? The lack of maintenance can be used to demonstrate the need to replace the building. Its classic demolition by neglect. And so, we find that this quote from the Providence Preservation Society is apt:

“Historic” only comes to mean “inadequate” when generations of policymakers and administrators neglect their responsibility to care for the public buildings where our city’s youth spend their formative years.8

For more of PPSD’s track record, we can look at Nathan Bishop Middle School on the East Side. As early as January 2007, an architectural firm was asked to propose options for the school which included renovation and full-scale replacement.9 In the end, the price tag for replacement was not high enough, possibly in an attempt to make renovation look less attractive. The cost of material removal after demolition was not considered.10 To the delight of preservation groups and many parents as well, the renovation took 10 months and cost $35-million, finshing in time for the 2009 school year. In some reports, demolition and new construction would have taken “2 1/2 to 3 years.”11 While new construction was supposed to cost $2M less than the renovation, the plan to renovate included 20,000 more square feet.12

The renovated building did what it set out to do. It attracted more enrollment, pulling some students from private options.13 In the three years after the renovations, school test scores improved and parents were largely satisfied with the new building and the invigorated staff.14

Can the same thing happen to Mount Pleasant High School? Maybe. It would require better communication and honesty from the school administration. It would require more detail into how a new facility will support 21st-century learning initiatives. It will require more public details with accurate construction estimates.

While we need quality schools and our educational programs need to evolve to support new learning styles, we can’t make these decisions hastily. Replacing a building will not “fix” all of the problems with Providence schools. The investments we have made in public education should continue to be honored without holding back the progress we have made in supporting the needs of students preparing for a modern world.

Current Events

From the Providence Preservation Society:

Stage II plans for Mount Pleasant High School, called the “Development of a Solution,” are due in late February [2024] […]. PPS hopes to see a hybrid solution that renovates the entire facade, lobby, and auditorium, with the classrooms and other spaces redesigned to suit 21st-century school standards. A hybrid solution that prioritizes the retention of Mount Pleasant’s facade would align with the City of Providence’s pledge to be a Climate Jobs City and RIDEM’s new Environmental Justice Policy, as the carbon emissions from the demolition of a 300,000-square-foot building and new construction would negate benefits from a newer, energy-efficient school for anything between 10 and 80 years. Considering that nearby Warwick is on track to spend $350 million on two new high schools, a ticket price [only marginally more expensive than] the $170-190 million quoted for a full renovation of Mount Pleasant, renovation and retrofitting offer a stronger solution from both an economic and environmental perspective.

History

From the Providence Preservation Society Online Architecture Guide

Completed in 1938 to designs provided by architects at the Office of the Commissioner of Public Buildings, Mount Pleasant High School is a monumental four-story red-brick-and-limestone building in the Collegiate Gothic mode so popular for educational institutions across the country but relatively scarce in Providence. Its lively façade is animated by stringcourses defining the stories, a pair of large and asymmetrical towers in dynamic juxtaposition flanking the principal entrance at its center, and a very fine interior, still largely intact. It is impressively sited on one of the city’s largest public-school campuses, which provides welcome and much used recreational open space in the otherwise densely built neighborhood.

Under the recommendations of the Facilities Master Plan by DeJONG educational consultants, Mt. Pleasant High School was slated for demolition and replacement by two new schools [in 2006]. Word of this demolition resulted in an outcry from the neighborhood residents. In 2007, PPS included this school on the Most Endangered Properties list. As of February, 2019, the landmark school continues to serve the community.

— Captured 30 December 2023 from guide.ppsri.org/property/mount-pleasant-high-school

In the News

Questions we should ask before demolishing a Providence landmark

Editorial by Andrew Grover, Adriana Hazelton, Sam Bell, and Ariana Packard
Providence Journal | September 24, 2023

Walking along Academy Avenue in Providence toward Smith Street, one can admire classic, stately Providence homes and the notable Water Supply Building. But a gaze farther west over the La Salle Academy playing fields catches sight of one of the city’s true jewels: the Collegiate Gothic spires of Mount Pleasant High School.

As reported in The Providence Journal, the Rhode Island Department of Education and the Providence Public School District may demolish or seriously alter this landmark structure, and these proposals are deeply concerning.

At very limited public engagement sessions, residents, teachers, and preservationists were staunchly against demolition, and even the idea of partial demolition was met with skepticism. These sentiments were largely unacknowledged by RIDE, and there is a strong foreboding we are coming perilously close to destroying a Providence landmark. As one long-term neighbor pleaded during public “engagement,” Mount Pleasant was built during the Great Depression, and the people of the city put everything into it when they had nothing.

The result was the architecturally stunning and distinct Collegiate Gothic structure that one can see from multiple points in the city. And as the neighbor also added, RIDE seems to want to replace it with something ”that looks like a Staples.”

Much of RIDE’s proposals are based on estimates that demolition is cheaper than renovation, paltry reasoning compared to what Depression-era Providencers built for their children.

There is doubt, however, that the quoted costs are even accurate. As if Rhode Islanders need examples, costs of new construction are always underestimated and inevitably run over. To preservationists, the case of Mount Pleasant feels extremely similar to that of Nathan Bishop Middle School, another situation where the people of Providence were told it was cheaper to demolish a beautiful building. Only with outside review did the school department admit it had omitted a very expensive item before the bulldozer arrived: material removal. Renovated instead, a beautiful East Side landmark was restored to splendor. It would be unfortunate to have learned nothing from this and once again raze a beautiful landmark before realizing cost estimates were pulled out of thin air and did not pass muster under public scrutiny.

And for whom is this new academic vision being built? PPSD talks endlessly about 21st century learning principles and career tech tracks without specifying how many students are projected to take these courses, with what equipment, and why current classrooms are not adequate. Teachers are frustrated by this, and one can only surmise that this new school would not serve current Mount Pleasant students.

Environmental costs were also largely out of the conversation. How much carbon emission and waste would the demolition of this 300,000-square-feet footprint create? Providence has experienced dreadful flooding and poor air quality. Discounting how demolition would further impact climate change in Providence is grossly irresponsible. As was said by renowned architect Carl Elefante in 2007, “the greenest building is the one already built.”

There are several key questions RIDE needs to address.

What public engagement are their proposals based on? How exactly does new, cheaper construction meet the needs of Mount Pleasant as seen by teachers and students? Do cost estimates include material removal and can there be an outside review of these estimates? Have carbon footprint estimates been factored in? How does the carbon cost of new construction vs. renovation square with the state’s 2030 net zero goals? Robust public discussions on these topics are required before wrecking balls show up at Mount Pleasant.

Andrew Grover is a neighborhood resident, educator, and artist. Adriana Hazelton is advocacy manager at the Providence Preservation Society. Sam Bell is a state senator representing District 5. Ariana Packard is a Mount Pleasant High School teacher.

“Questions we should ask before demolishing a Providence landmark.” Providence Journal (RI), PFO-Journal ed., sec. News, 24 Sept. 2023, p. A23. NewsBank: America’s News, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info%3Asid/infoweb.newsbank.com&svc_dat=NewsBank&req_dat=D4BD6B42F1AB4706B5E1244D477DEE03&rft_val_format=info%3Aofi/fmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=document_id%3Anews/194401E5B7ADFF70. Accessed 30 Dec. 2023.


Rebuild of Mt. Pleasant High School is ruled out - City says renovation would be too costly

by Amy Russo
Providence Journal | September 9, 2023

Renovation is officially off the table for Mount Pleasant High School, meaning at least partial demolition is coming.

Providence Public School District (PPSD) spokesman Jay Wegimont told The Providence Journal on Thursday that when the district submits its construction plan to the state Department of Education this month, it “will include a [proposal] that allows for either partial or full rebuild of the school.”

That plan is due on Sept. 15, leaving only a few days for the district to decide.

Wegimont said the district “is continuing to assess data and feedback from various engagements and will have further information to share in the coming weeks.” Wegimont said the plan will ultimately “include a [proposal] that allows for either partial or full rebuild of the school.”

“Additional engagement, educational program assessment and cost analysis will occur to determine the best design for the school,” he added. Wegimont said a full renovation was not a viable option and “would be disruptive and significantly affect timeline.”

What do the two options look like?

Initially, PPSD had presented the three options to the community – a full renovation, a partial demolition and partial rebuild, and a full demolition and full rebuild – as if they were each possibilities. Throughout the review, however, the district made clear it lacked the money to support a renovation, estimated at roughly $190 million, when it only has $110 million to spend.

A partial demolition would be a middle ground between those who want the integrity of the building preserved and the district, which has made new construction and 21st-century upgrades its goal. Yet even that is about $10 million over budget.

The full demolition has been presented as the most affordable option, although the auditorium, for example, might be too costly to replace.

The partial demolition would keep that part of the building intact.

It would also avoid displacing students, as they would be able to remain in the existing structure while a new building is built behind it, then move to the new building while part of the old one is demolished.

Russo, Amy. “Rebuild of Mt. Pleasant High School is ruled out - City says renovation would be too costly.” Providence Journal (RI), PFO-Journal ed., sec. News, 9 Sept. 2023, p. A1. NewsBank: America’s News, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info%3Asid/infoweb.newsbank.com&svc_dat=NewsBank&req_dat=D4BD6B42F1AB4706B5E1244D477DEE03&rft_val_format=info%3Aofi/fmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=document_id%3Anews/193F10EF08977A68. Accessed 30 Dec. 2023.

  1. Russo, Amy. “City weighs options for Mt. Pleasant High.” Providence Journal (RI), PFO-Journal ed., sec. News, 26 July 2023, p. A7. NewsBank: America’s News, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info%3Asid/infoweb.newsbank.com&svc_dat=NewsBank&req_dat=D4BD6B42F1AB4706B5E1244D477DEE03&rft_val_format=info%3Aofi/fmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=document_id%3Anews/19303B16F76824A0. Accessed 30 Dec. 2023. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Russo, Amy. “Heat keeps pupils home - 19 of Providence’s schools were closed; fans, ice ready for Friday.” Providence Journal (RI), PFO-Journal ed., sec. News, 8 Sept. 2023, p. A1. NewsBank: America’s News, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info%3Asid/infoweb.newsbank.com&svc_dat=NewsBank&req_dat=D4BD6B42F1AB4706B5E1244D477DEE03&rft_val_format=info%3Aofi/fmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=document_id%3Anews/193EBAD84C68F4C8. Accessed 30 Dec. 2023. 

  4. “City weighs options for Mt. Pleasant High.” 

  5. Russo, Amy. “Closing schools had funds slashed - City says cuts were done the year before.” Providence Journal (RI), PFO-Journal ed., sec. News, 24 Feb. 2023, p. A1. NewsBank: America’s News, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info%3Asid/infoweb.newsbank.com&svc_dat=NewsBank&req_dat=D4BD6B42F1AB4706B5E1244D477DEE03&rft_val_format=info%3Aofi/fmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=document_id%3Anews/18FE2554B7B2F8E0. Accessed 30 Dec. 2023. 

  6. Ibid. 

  7. Ibid. 

  8. Providence Preservation Staff. “Mount Pleasant High School.” Current advocacy section. Captured 30 December 2023 from https://ppsri.org/advocacy/current-advocacy/mount-pleasant-high-school/ 

  9. Borg, Linda. “Designers unveil alternate plans for Nathan Bishop.” Providence Journal (RI), Metro ed., sec. News, 12 Apr. 2007, pp. D-01. NewsBank: America’s News, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info%3Asid/infoweb.newsbank.com&svc_dat=NewsBank&req_dat=D4BD6B42F1AB4706B5E1244D477DEE03&rft_val_format=info%3Aofi/fmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=document_id%3Anews/152426D1DF3E2758. Accessed 30 Dec. 2023. 

  10. “Letters to the editor - No need to build a new high school.” Providence Journal (RI), PFO-Journal ed., sec. News, 20 Aug. 2023, p. A22. NewsBank: America’s News, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info%3Asid/infoweb.newsbank.com&svc_dat=NewsBank&req_dat=D4BD6B42F1AB4706B5E1244D477DEE03&rft_val_format=info%3Aofi/fmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=document_id%3Anews/1938793808E42750. Accessed 30 Dec. 2023. 

  11. Lennon, Sheila. “Vote came before discussion at Nathan Bishop meeting; 80k+ animal sounds online; ‘Sopranos’ viral marketing.” Providence Journal (RI), All ed., sec. subterranean_blog, 8 Feb. 2007. NewsBank: America’s News, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info%3Asid/infoweb.newsbank.com&svc_dat=NewsBank&req_dat=D4BD6B42F1AB4706B5E1244D477DEE03&rft_val_format=info%3Aofi/fmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=document_id%3Anews/1524270539E90320. Accessed 30 Dec. 2023. 

  12. Borg, Linda. “School board favors renovation of Nathan Bishop.” Providence Journal (RI), Metro ed., sec. News, 26 June 2007, pp. D-01. NewsBank: America’s News, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info%3Asid/infoweb.newsbank.com&svc_dat=NewsBank&req_dat=D4BD6B42F1AB4706B5E1244D477DEE03&rft_val_format=info%3Aofi/fmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=document_id%3Anews/1524270162F64970. Accessed 30 Dec. 2023. 

  13. Borg, Linda. “Education - Second life for Nathan Bishop.” Providence Journal (RI), All ed., sec. projoRhodeIsland, 2 Sept. 2009, pp. A-10. NewsBank: America’s News, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info%3Asid/infoweb.newsbank.com&svc_dat=NewsBank&req_dat=D4BD6B42F1AB4706B5E1244D477DEE03&rft_val_format=info%3Aofi/fmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=document_id%3Anews/152423C1E4CC22B0. Accessed 30 Dec. 2023. 

  14. BORG, LINDA. “PROVIDENCE - Scores at middle schools improve for last 3 years.” Providence Journal (RI), 1 ed., sec. projoRhodeIsland, 11 Feb. 2012, p. A7. NewsBank: America’s News, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info%3Asid/infoweb.newsbank.com&svc_dat=NewsBank&req_dat=D4BD6B42F1AB4706B5E1244D477DEE03&rft_val_format=info%3Aofi/fmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=document_id%3Anews/152421C1DEA50050. Accessed 30 Dec. 2023.