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Going to School in a Dead Mall? Not Such a Bad Idea.

Photo: Cat Cutillo/Seven Days

A Michael Kors sign in the cafeteria. Teachers posing in front of a Levi’s ad. A library in the shoe department. Classroom walls — that didn’t even reach the ceiling! — cutting across three types of flooring. The photos of Burlington (Vermont) High School’s new home, the former downtown Macy’s, that hit the internet last week weren’t pretty. “The high school I went to was found to have unsafe levels of toxic chemicals so they built a makeshift school in the Macy’s in the town’s abandoned mall, and I have never seen something more dystopian” tweeted the Washington Post’s Aviva Loeb, attaching several photos by Cat Cutillo.

But I saw something different. Two things, actually: (a) a thousand kids going back to school during a pandemic in one of the few spaces in the city big enough to accommodate them at safe distances. “This just kind of feels like a place we can call home, you know? Kind of our place now, where finally we can just be again,” Wyatt Harte, a BHS senior, told local TV station WCAX on March 4, reopening day.

And (b) a good use of a building whose era has come to an end. The pandemic has only accelerated the demise of the American department store and the grand shopping ship it anchored: the mall. As Jason Del Rey has reported at Recode, more than 1,500 department stores have closed over the past decade, as consumers continue to favor discount stores on price and the internet for brand discovery. “The department-store genre has been taking the great American shopping mall down with it, slowly but inevitably,” Mark Cohen, the director of retail studies at Columbia University, told Del Rey.

The genre may be nearly dead, yet the building remains. And for economic, ecological, and social reasons, those buildings should be reused. “It’s amazing to think that we are standing in what used to be a department store; that we’re greeting people where we used to buy winter coats; reading books where they once sold fine china; taking phone calls in converted changing rooms; and learning science in the old suit racks,” Burlington’s school superintendent, Tom Flanagan, said at the ceremony. A school in a department store doesn’t have to be a sad story. In fact, this should just be the beginning, both for the students and for a country once addicted to big boxes.

This Macy’s was a late addition to the Burlington Square Mall, which opened in 1976. The mall and the subsequent removal of cars from Church Street were part of a wave of efforts by business districts to entice shoppers back from the suburbs by replicating elements of their success — ample parking, all-weather shopping, and landscaped, car-free paths for strolling and snacking. The most successful part of the 1970s scheme here has always been Church Street, one of only two dozen pedestrianized downtowns that remain in the United States (which once had 200). Church Street is fed by foot traffic from the university, where students have time and money but not necessarily a car.

Now high-school students will have the same advantage. “I’m excited about the potential for a dynamic downtown high school that’s connected to the city in the way that none of our schools are connected to the city right now,” Stephen Carey of the Burlington School Board told WCAX. Instead of being stuck out of town, high school students now have access to Church Street and other urban amenities.

The indoor mall, however, did not prove to be as big a draw as the outdoor one, Vermont winters notwithstanding, and the owners hoped a new department store would attract more customers off Church Street. Built in 1999 as a Filene’s, the store became a Macy’s in 2006, and it never thrived. In 2017, the rest of Burlington Square Mall was demolished, leaving the Macy’s even more isolated as a replacement project failed to find adequate financing. In early 2018, Macy’s closed the location, along with 100 other stores.

In November 2020, the Burlington School Board signed a 3.5-year lease of the old store, setting up a tight ten-week deadline to convert it from shopping to learning. Farrington Construction — which shares an owner with the former mall — did the work. High-school students had been sharing a building with a middle school since November, after high levels of PCBs were found on the BHS campus. That deadline made me more sympathetic than I might otherwise be to the new school’s sloppy deployment of white walls across the store’s windowless spaces, as well as the scraps of abandoned boutiques left on display. A long-term solution needn’t be so basic, and probably won’t be.

June Williamson and Ellen Dunham-Jones’s recently published book Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia includes a number of reused shopping malls and department stores, including Austin Community College’s Highland campus. There Barnes Gromatsky Kosarek Architects converted the concrete, windowless, 200,000-square-foot former JCPenney building into the center of a new campus, cutting a 170-foot-long skylight into the roof and creating interior pathways with glass-fronted rooms and a big open-plan computer lab with 600 workstations. Similar techniques were used to convert a former Walmart (also empty and windowless) into the McAllen (Texas) Public Library, adding skylights and taking advantage of the high ceilings. In both cases, what were once closed-in, single-purpose spaces are now light, bright and appealing. Now that many students are learning online, those big open spaces make particular sense as socially distanced rooms where students can work individually but be together.

“We’ve got ten to 15 good examples in the database of schools or higher ed facilities going into malls,” says Williamson. She notes Maryvale Shopping City in Phoenix, a community master-planned by father-of-the-mall Victor Gruen, was sold to the school district in the late 1990s and converted into elementary and middle schools. As Build a Better Burb said, “The old movie theater became an auditorium, a former skating rink was transformed into the district’s first gymnasium, and the parking lots became athletic fields.”

“Early open-air malls with the covered arcade are almost like those California schools that are one story with exterior walkways,” Williamson says. “From a morphological perspective, the mall is a campus type, and it can become an educational campus, a medical campus.” In their book, she and Dunham-Jones emphasize the potential for these structures to come back as more than one thing – the Austin site, for example, has also become a site for new housing and a new headquarters for the local public TV station.

Nor is there as big an architectural gap between a department store and a high school as you might think. During the late 1960s and early 1970s — just as Burlington was getting malled — many architects embraced inward-looking educational designs, centering their schools around interior, top-lit communal spaces, a lot like a department store or mall atrium, with balconies ringing the floor and leading to the classrooms. The Brutalist Southside Junior High (now Middle School) in Columbus, Indiana — a hotbed of innovation for modernism and education architecture — designed by Eliot Noyes and completed in 1969, has relatively small exterior openings but a big daylit common area peppered with tables, chairs and trees. Stairs, rather than escalators, taking students upwards. Noyes’s inspiration for the school’s top-heavy concrete form is clearly Le Corbusier’s Couvent de la Tourette — a friary with an open-air courtyard located near Lyon, France, that was completed in 1960. It is also the inspiration for HOK’s 1970 Neiman Marcus store at the Houston Galleria.

The same era brought us the open-plan revolution: schools without walls, with high ceilings and exposed ductwork, where pods of students were separated by temporary dividers or changes in level rather than permanent classrooms. Mt. Healthy Elementary School, also in Columbus and designed by Hardy Holtzman Pfeiffer in 1972, was built as a giant open box with a long spine running diagonally down the center separating clustered classroom spaces from the cafeteria, library and gym. The supergraphics, colored carpets and exposed ductwork look a lot like the devices today’s architects are using to retrofit big boxes.

And some of the problems those open-plan schools had are also recurring here.“The walls aren’t exactly soundproof,” Harte said on opening day, “but it’s kind of nice because it’s nice to hear all these different voices and you feel like you’re kind of back in a community again.” Over time, his opinion may change, and thankfully both air-handling and acoustic technology have improved over the past 40 years. There’s no reason students should have to choose between sociability and clatter, not to mention daylight over denim ads, even when their teachers command a space where Ann Taylor and Auntie Anne once reigned supreme.

Going to School in a Dead Mall? Not Such a Bad Idea.