A 150-year-old vacant school is being outfitted for a new purpose — but desks and artwork from the former classrooms aren't going anywhere.
The Virginia Blanchard School in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, has been transformed into affordable housing, complete with 25 units that contain historic elements from the school.
Built in the 1870s, with an addition in the early 1900s, the neighborhood elementary school on East Hartford Avenue was the oldest active school in Massachusetts when it closed in 2002.
"There were the issues of lead paint and asbestos and you don’t want the kids in that sort of environment," said Michael Potaski, vice president of the Virginia Blanchard Memorial Housing Association.
In 2006, Potaski joined Uxbridge resident Harry Romasco to try to come up with a plan to preserve the historic school, while also giving it new life.
"It was met with a lot of skepticism," Potaski said.
Over the past decade, the two created the Virginia Blanchard Memorial Housing Association and managed to cobble together a patchwork of grants and historic tax credits to fund an expansion and reconstruction of the school.
They managed to build 25 units of affordable housing, for which they received 150 applications, Romasco said. The units went mostly to Uxbridge residents and veterans.
This preservation project has even received an "Excellence in Affordable Housing Award" and has been nominated for a national award.
For Romasco, the school has always held special meaning. His entire family went to school there.
Others also share that connection.
"I went to kindergarten here," said tenant Johnathan Nelson.
Nelson is one of those tenants who not only feels fortunate to have literally won a lottery to get an apartment here, but loves reliving his childhood inside.
"Part of the outside is on the inside of the new building," Nelson said. "It's really cool, it's amazing. They still have some of the classrooms set up with the original desks."
That little touch of history throughout — with blackboards in every apartment and artwork from students who attended the Blanchard school decades ago hanging on walls — is what Romasco and Potaski say makes it so special.
"It was really important to preserve it and keep as much the look both outside and inside as we could," Potaski said.