November 1, 2013

Bowdoin College helps beloved school make artful return

By Mary Pols
Staff Writer

BRUNSWICK — When he took on Bowdoin College’s project to renovate Brunswick’s Longfellow Elementary School into a dance and art center, architect Timothy Mansfield understood that the stakes were unusual. The $6.5 million job ahead was complicated not just by structural challenges, but emotional ones.

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A Bowdoin College art class meets in one of the new drawing studios in the Edwards Center for Art and Dance in Brunswick. The center will have a grand opening this weekend.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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The former Longfellow Elementary School in Brunswick has been converted into a state of the art facility by Bowdoin College.

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open house: Edwards center for art and dance

BOWDOIN COLLEGE welcomes the public for a tour of the old Longfellow Elementary School, now the Robert H. and Blythe Bickel Edwards Center for Art and Dance.

WHEN: 1 to 3 pm. Saturday

WHERE: Enter on South Street in Brunswick.

OTHER: Students will lead tours and cider and light refreshments will be served.

The college wanted to consolidate art studios, offices, classroom space and its dance program from six far-flung locations on and off campus into one place at Longfellow. The 1924 brick structure had, until the spring of 2011, been a thriving elementary school but was not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The town’s decision to close, instead of renovate Longfellow was, and to some extent still is, controversial.

Bowdoin wanted – even felt compelled – to honor the old building, which had served generations of Brunswick residents.

“There was a lot of anxiety,” said Mansfield, whose firm Cambridge Seven was responsible for the creative renovation of an old Boston jail into the Liberty Hotel. That included qualms along the lines of: “They are going to take it and what are they going to do?”

The perception in some quarters was that Bowdoin was swooping in on something precious, even though it was hardly a fire sale. The college made a deal with the town: its downtown McLellan Building in exchange for the Longfellow building. (The McLellan Building is slated to become the new town office.)

On Saturday Bowdoin is throwing open the doors of the new Edwards Center for Art and Dance to the public for what the administration hopes is a warm reception, even from some of those doubters.

“I still get sad when I drive by,” said Erin Contois Vazdauskas, whose son Luke’s first year at Longfellow was also the school’s last.

If she goes to the open house, what she sees might surprise her. From the outside, the old school looks virtually unchanged. The world globes that used to welcome K-5 students remain in place, as do the old metal swingsets off to the side of the building.

But inside, it has been turned into an art (or dance) student’s paradise: big, open rooms, tons of natural light and state of the art multimedia equipment mixed in with the old, such as 18 photographic enlargers in a spacious darkroom and a vintage letterpress that until recently was housed in an old barn. And all done on a relatively modest budget.

Bowdoin’s Dean for Academic Affairs, Cristle Collins Judd, said the college deliberately kept costs low. “We didn’t build the Taj Mahal, for a reason.”

But if Bowdoin wanted to lure more arts students, the Edwards Center should do the trick. Artist Katherine Bradford, whose children attended Longfellow in the 1970s, raved about her early peek at the Edwards Center, particularly about a gallery/work space on the ground floor that will serve as a studio for visiting artists and for shows of student work.

“That is a great move,” she said. “The kids showing and the kids partaking of that gallery opens up a whole life to them, seeing people’s work, making work, putting up shows, attending openings.”

And the second-floor studios of faculty members, including Mark Wethli, John Bisbee and James Mullins, will allow those young people to see professionals at work.

“I never saw an artist’s studio growing up,” Bradford said. “It would have made a difference.”

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Artists easels stand in the corner of a drawing studio at the new center.

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The new Edwards Center for Art and Dance includes a large, fully equipped photographic darkroom.

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Art department faculty member Mark Wethli shows examples of the work of students in his public art class.

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