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New school will retain sense of old self

Builders want to be sure the new $2.8-million facility, three times larger than its predecessor, will keep its historic flavor.

By AMY SCHERZER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 26, 2002

One hot day in June 2001, the bulldozers came and knocked down MacFarlane Park Alternative School. Large cracks from a decaying foundation had caused the 75-year-old West Tampa school to shift and sink beyond repair.

"It was really painful because it was identified as one of the nine most historically important school structures in Hillsborough County," said Ken Garcia of AbellGarcia Architects.

Two programs once based at the school -- one for teen parents and the other for kids with behavioral problems -- moved to a temporary campus set up on Cypress Street, between Roland Park Middle School and Jefferson High School.

In the fall, the teen parent program will move into the Waters Career Center near Columbus Drive and Tampa Street.

The second program returns to MacFarlane Park -- but in a strikingly different building.

School officials selected Garcia to provide a sense of history in a $2.8-million facility three times larger than its predecessor. J.O. DeLotto construction company won the bid to rebuild at 1721 N MacDill Ave.

For Garcia the challenge boiled down to this:

"How do you destroy and celebrate at the same time?"

Construction couldn't even begin until tons of muck and debris were removed from the site, once used as a dump for landscape materials.

Garcia answered by designing the exterior of new MacFarlane Park Center as a simple white canvas, upon which he could mount artifacts from the old building. Three dozen aged, cast-stone cornices "hang" as relics on permanent display.

"It becomes a museum piece, a permanent exhibit," Garcia said, pointing out the elaborate archway remounted on the smooth stucco of the contemporary building.

A state grant paid to salvage the old materials and workers gently removed the aging archway and cornices. Anything else salvageable -- doors, pine floors, slate blackboards, cabinets and plants -- was taken for resale.

J.J. Watts, the Tampa sculptor who rebuilt many a Bayshore Boulevard baluster, went to work cleaning, repairing and reattaching the fragile stonework.

"It was quite a challenge, and I loved every minute of it," she said.

Some cornices crumbled completely, but many could be reassembled. Watts got a license to drive a forklift with a boom in order to strap them to the roof with steel.

Watts refurbished another 24 cornices for seats in the central schoolyard.

The biggest undertaking -- the elaborately carved archway -- arrived in 58 chunks to be assembled at her MacDill Avenue studio.

She thought of her friend, the late Jan Abell, with every piece of the puzzle.

Abell, a well-known preservationist and architect, died Sept. 30, 2000, in a horseback-riding accident in Pasco County at age 55. Garcia's architectural partner for 18 years, Abell campaigned to save numerous historic buildings in the Bay area, including MacFarlane Park School.

"This is my tribute to her," said Watts. "She would have loved this."

Garcia concurs.

"I think Jan would be real happy with the re-integration of the historic fabric," he said.

To honor the original elementary school for cigarmakers' children, Garcia located the administrative wing in exactly the same footprint. Two new wings form a U-shape in the 27,000-square-foot facility.

Eight-foot-tall windows are the same size as the originals. Classrooms are paired by twos, separated by two lavatories. That eliminates leaving the classroom to hang out in the hallway bathrooms.

There are two computer labs and a media center. An existing building from the 1940s gets a kitchen and will become the lunchroom.

About 150 alternative education students will fill 12 classrooms. They will get additional help with behavior and discipline problems and academic deficiencies in order to increase the likelihood of finishing high school. Most stay a semester or two, then return to their neighborhood school.

Moving day can't come soon enough for principal Bonnie O'Brien who opened the MacFarlane alternative programs in 1991. She expects to welcome students on the first day of the new school year, Aug. 7.

"It's fantastic, coming out of portables to a brand new building," she said. "The kids will finally feel like they have some ownership."

-- Amy Scherzer can be reached at 226-3332 or

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