Young students meeting old buildings, with appreciation

At the Fraunces Tavern Museum, students look up to their teacher -- and up, and up -- because their history teacher is four stories tall. The "teacher" is also 200 years old.

Manhattan's Fraunces Tavern, once a favorite hangout of Gen. George Washington and a present-day New York City history museum, has been sponsoring an innovative five- week program, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, designed to bring education out of the classroom and, literally, into the streets.

Called "Save This Street: Transformation in Perception," it introduces elementary and high-school-age students to a concept that most of their fathers and mothers are just beginning to understand: historic preservation.

In response to the renewed interest in saving old buildings nationwide, many historic preservationists have come to realize that educating children about the built environment is an essential part of protecting America's heritage for future generations.

From a "Downtown Discovery Tour" in Birmingham, Ala., which offers children a "hands on" tour of inner-city architecture, to the increasingly popular "Adopt-a-Building" programs that are springing up in many areas of the country (in which the life story of one particular building is explored), students are becoming highly conscious participants in urban life by learning to understand and appreciate the buildings around them.

"Buildings are as much of a primary source for history as the Declaration of Independence," the Fraunces Tavern curator, Susan Saidenberg, contends of the early-19th-century structures outside her museum's door.

Through direct contact with these buildings, students are also learning about art, English, and architectural history -- with a little urban politics thrown in.

Historic preservation has expanded from its early "Washington slept here" role of saving old houses to broader issues concerning neighborhood preservation , urban revitalization, and "adaptive use" of older buildings to serve new functions within a community.

Washington actually did sleep at Fraunces Tavern, but the implications of "Save This Street" transcend the landmark's early history. The reconstructed Georgian residence and its five immediate neighbors make up the only full block of low-rise 18th-and 19th-century buildings left in the financial district.

Dwarfed today by the massive glass-and-steel skyscrapers that breathe down its back, and threatened for years by parking-lot developers, the uniform row of relatively tiny buildings looks like a miniature version of Victorian New York mysteriously airlifted into the caverns of lower Manhattan.

Mostly vacant now and being readied for restoration and conversion into 44 apartments under the aegis of the New York Landmark Conservancy, the block offers a unique opportunity to study the recycling of historic buildings.

For budding 17-year-old architects in the "architecture club" at Manhattan's High School of Art and Design, participation in the "Save This Street" program has meant becoming aware of the nitty-gritty details and compromises involved in saving a historic but potentially valuable piece of Manhattan real estate.

Experts from the New York Landmarks Conservancy and the New York City Planning Commission, and offices of the architect and developer of the properties, discussed their roles in planning for the block's future. The students got an inside view of Victorian building technology when a preservation architect took them on a tour past the block's bricks, pillars, and beams. For these technically skilled teen-agers, the ultimate "Save This Street" exercise was to design their own reuse projects for the buildings, keeping the history and needs of the neighborhood in mind.

Their imaginative and thought-provoking visions range from Tom O'Connor's very practical medical center to Sung Yu Hong's beautiful rendering of a history gallery and bookstore.

Most chose to reuse architectural details from buildings they admit they previously would not even have noticed. "You forget the way people built in the past," one design student noted, admiringly.

Before conceiving "Save This Street," the Fraunces Tavern curator spent time studying England's pioneering efforts in education based on the built environment.

During her stint as a history teacher, she said, she kept hearing phrases such as "this doesn't mean anything." Now she is convinced that using historic buildings as teaching tools can be a way of making what happens in classrooms "not so divorced from kids' own lives."

Antoinette J. Lee, education services coordinator for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the nation's largest private preservation organization, believes programs such as this "reflect the current diversity of the preservation movement." She would like to see "Save This Street" and similar programs attain a permanent place in standard educational curricula. At the moment, she noted, most tend to be extra-curricular.

At present, "Save This Street" is a museum-based program, but Susan Saidenberg hopes to publish a workbook so that others may ducplicate it.

Among Debbie Pierce's fourth-graders at PS 59 there are still some mixed feelings about the Fraunces Tavern block, despite "Save This Street's" preservation orientation.

As the class gathered around the long, brown paper mural they had drawn of the block's facades, Brett Haber likened the row of abandoned buildings to a scruffy-looking police lineup.

In their present dilapidated state, he said, they make him "feel sort of sad." David Saul worried that the presence of condominium apartments would mean that "only wealthy people will be able to enjoy the historic buildings."

While not all of the children agree that "old is beautiful," after five weeks of investigating historic buildings they have a firsthand knowledge that will allow them to actively follow, perhaps even influence, they city's future.

"I think maybe we should tear the block down and just leave Fraunces Tavern, because lots of people work downtown and it looks like an old dump," one class member argued.

"You can't," Josh Hoffman, armed with his brand-new awareness of preservation law, piped up.

"It's a landmark! It's an historical place!"

The fruits of "Save This Street: Transformations in Perception" are on display through June 6 at the Fraunces Tavern Museum.m

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