Albany’s central elementary to get fresh air

One of the oldest buildings in the Greater Albany Public Schools district is getting a not-so-extreme makeover. Call it a very light-touch, superficial even.

Earlier this month, the Albany Landmarks Commission paved the way — not without a notable detractor — for the school district to install new air vents on Central Elementary’s windows in a bid to improve the building’s dated ventilation system.

GAPS Facilities Director Lorin Stanley spoke earlier this month before commission members, along with architect Marlene Gillis, about their proposed revamps, which they say will ensure students are getting fresh air inside the century-plus-old building.

A former mayor, however, argued that the improvements would mar the venerable building’s character.

Ultimately the commission, tasked with promoting the city’s historic districts and landmarks, unanimously approved GAPS’ plans with the condition the paint the proposed aluminum louvers — two of which to be placed in each classroom — a dark color to ensure they blend in with the building’s brick façade.

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A historic building

Central Elementary School (if the reader will permit a very brief history lesson) was built in 1915 by prolific regional architect Charles Burggraff and lies in the Monteith Historic District in the westside of downtown.

It was originally the site of the old Albany college, before becoming the city’s first junior high school and ultimately an elementary school. Starting in 2015, the school became sisters with Takena Elementary, which now serves kindergartners through second graders, who then show up at Central starting in third grade.

Central Elementary 2024 - 01

Earlier this month, the Albany Landmarks Commission paved the way for the Greater Albany Public Schools District to add louvers to the windows of the century-plus-old building. 

Hans Boyle

Despite the evolution of its student makeup, the building hasn’t evolved much ventilation-wise.

The building relies on an old steam heating system, replete with dated and clanky radiators. They’re also known to reach surface temperatures of over 200 degrees that fry any unfortunate student or staff member who mistakenly places hands on them at the wrong time, according to Stanley.

Improved air flow?

The district’s proposed improvements include removing those radiators and installing modern units that connect to the existing steam lines, which can be monitored and controlled remotely to help maintain consistent temperatures. That’s in addition to installing aluminum louvers in classroom windows to better control airflow in the building.

Air conditioning isn’t part of the deal, Stanley said.

All in all, the improvements slated to begin this summer should cost between $350,000 to $400,000, according to Stanley. The project will be supported by the district’s remaining pandemic relief funds.

Past work at Central has included a cafeteria expansion last summer and, more significantly, a $1.5 million seismic upgrade back in 2012.

To underscore the necessity for the improvements at the Landmarks Commission meeting on May 1, Gillis reflected on a car show she attended in Tacoma, Washington that showcased 100-plus year old Ford Model Ts, about the same age of Central Elementary.

“You can’t put an elementary school student in that car and drive it around safely,” she told the commission. “And that’s kind of what we’re doing with this building.”

According to Stanley, the building currently doesn’t meet air flow standards set by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, which require a minimum rate of airflow of 15 cubic feet per minute.

The shortfall doesn’t go unnoticed: Staff often leave multiple fans running and windows open to keep classrooms well circulated, according to Mairi Tsiftsi, Central’s dean of students.

Those who spoke in support of the proposed improvements before the commission earlier this month included Central Principal Shannon Richards, who recounted getting her hand stuck in one of the building’s old sash windows, an accident that sent her to urgent care.

The hope, she told the commission, is that staff can keep more windows closed and reduce the risk of harm to students with the installation of new louvers, particularly during days of poor air quality, like when wildfires fill the skies with smoke.

A beautiful building

Not everyone was onboard with the proposed improvements, however.

Former Albany mayor and city councilor Dick Olsen, who led the charge the save the historic building in 1980 amid seismic and fire safety concerns, appreciates the district’s push to improve the school’s ventilation but thinks GAPS should place an air conditioning system on the building’s roof, in lieu of placing larger “unsightly” louvers and removing the school’s radiators.

He unsuccessfully urged the commission to reject the district’s proposal.

Olsen, whose two children went to Central and who has two framed drawings of the school on his home living room wall — including one made by Central students from a fundraiser — calls the building a centerpiece of the historic neighborhood.

Tsiftsi believes the building she works in is indeed beautiful, and needs to be maintained, but she’s looking forward to the ventilation improvements this summer.

Her job takes her everywhere in the building, and in classrooms during colder months, the radiators, which are roped off so students don’t burn themselves, make crackles and moans right out of horror films, she said.

When it gets hotter, the humming of fans can often make it difficult to hear instructors, she added. Even with fans, rooms can get quite stuffy. When she spoke to Mid-Valley Media this week after class, the outside temperature on her watch read 75 degrees.

In a classroom on the third floor’s southeast corner, with windows open and four fans blaring, the room’s thermometer read 80 degrees.

Related stories:

One of Charles Burggraf’s best-known constructions is celebrating its 100th birthday this school year, and the public is invited.

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