For the first time in three years, Hartford students once again walked the halls of the century-old school building on the hill overlooking Keney Park.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School campus quietly reopened Wednesday, the completion of its $111 million renovation perhaps overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic and a ransomware attack that delayed the start of Hartford’s school year by one day.
A ribbon cutting ceremony will be planned at a later date to allow the Hartford community to celebrate the revival of the Collegiate Gothic building and its history as a neighborhood hub at the intersection of Blue Hills and the North End.
Principal Doreen Crawford remembers well the years before MLK’s temporary relocation to Rawson STEAM Elementary School in 2017. Families had started to pull their children out of the building over the poor conditions. She said it was almost an eyesore to the community.
“A lot of times people would come in to deliver things and they’d say it looked like an abandoned building,” said Crawford, who lives in the surrounding Blue Hills neighborhood.
With the overhaul complete, Crawford said, “Just having this here warms my heart.”
A few years ago, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said, the MLK school was falling apart, with rodents and peeling paint, broken mechanical systems, and doors that wouldn’t close.
“There was a real possibility that Hartford was going to lose that historic school forever, but we fought hard, in partnership with our state delegation, to put the funding in place to do a full renovation that preserves the building’s magnificent architecture and will give a generation of young people a chance to learn and grow in a beautiful, historic school,” Bronin said.
The renovation was previously scheduled to start in 2016, but neighborhood activists already considered it long past due considering the condition of the 1920s-era school.
The MLK building, originally Thomas Snell Weaver High School, had never undergone major renovations, and it showed: The windows and boilers were still original, the doors lacked modern security features, the ceiling leaked, and the hallways and the AC would go out.
But four years ago, with the city teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, the Bronin administration temporarily dashed the $68 million project and sought to move students out of the building, which one school official described as “basically hanging on with duct tape and bubble gum.”
Families and students protested the relocation, fearing it would be be the final nail in the coffin of the MLK building. Their worry was well-founded — the budget crisis also prompted Hartford to scrap funding for another North End school, Clark Elementary, which has remained closed since the discovery of toxic PCBs in 2015.
Deshawn Palmer, who at the time was an eighth-grader at MLK, took part in the June 2016 protests to keep the school open. Yes, he says, it leaked in the halls when it rained, the AC didn’t work, and there were stories of mice running through classrooms.
But many schools had similar problems, said Palmer, now a freshman computer science major at Southern Connecticut State University. So he wanted to stay in the neighborhood school he grew up with.
“When I was a kid, there would always be something after school so we didn’t have to just go home and be alone,” said Palmer, remembering a basketball team, tutoring from a community organization, and drum, drill and dance practice.
The city ultimately kept students in the MLK building for an extra year and began renovations in 2017 under a new school closure and consolidation plan.
From his home on nearby Adams Street, “I could oversee the construction and them creating the beautiful school that it is now,” Palmer said.
The cost of the project rose to $111 million as the scope of the work was expanded to accommodate the task of historic preservation, and two different school programs.
MLK shares the campus with Breakthrough Magnet School-North, an elementary school that enrolls students from the suburbs as well as Hartford. Because of that, the state will reimburse Hartford for the vast majority of the cost — up to 95 percent.
The schools have separate entrances but share the multipurpose room and a media center that overlooks Keney Park through stained-glass windows.
The construction crews also restored old terrazzo floors in the corridors that had been overlaid in carpeting and tile decades ago. After exploring a number of options, the team was able to preserve the high-end flooring rather than cover it back up, according to John Butkus, who oversees Hartford Public Schools projects for Arcadis/O&G/C&R.
Arcadis also repaired and replicated decorative plaster work and preserved several other stained glass and leaded glass windows and the original handrails and balusters at the main entrance steps.
Gone are the original boilers, ripped seat cushions in the auditorium, rodent infestations in classrooms, leaking ceiling tiles, stained carpets and out-of-order bathrooms.
Natalie Langlaise, the lead parent in the campaign to restore MLK, has mixed feelings about its reopening. Her son fell so far behind while attending the school that she pulled him out in the fall of 2018. He’s doing better now in a private school, she says.
But Langlaise still lives near the MLK building and hopes for the sake of other Hartford students that the quality of education now matches the quality of the school.
“They really, really deserve it,” she said. “They deserve to have something to be proud about in their community. It’s really good. It has to be — I’m still here watching. I’m not going anywhere.”
“Pastor A.J. Johnson, a community leader who helped organize the 2016 protests, shares Langlaise’s frustration. He agrees that the issues in the North End go deeper than what can be fixed with a fresh building, but looks forward to the community celebrating the reopening when COVID-19 allows.
“I think it’s a great step in a big process we have to deal with in Hartford,” said Johnson, who works for the Center for Leadership and Justice, formerly known as the Christian Activities Council. “It’s a great thing. I don’t want to overcast it with, ‘We’ve got more to do’.
“Obviously, we have more to do, but for today, the fact the students can walk in a newly renovated building and have pride in their school is a big thing.”
Rebecca Lurye can be reached at email@example.com.
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