STONEHAM, MA - The town's Historical Commission recently bestowed upon local residents Larry and Bee Russo its annual Heritage Award for their efforts in converting the old East School into a three-unit condominium complex.
According to Historical Commission Chairman Margaret Warren, the two Stonehamites deserve much praise for preserving the old schoolhouse off of Beacon Street, noted architecturally for the several archways decorating its brick facade.
The schoolhouse, which first opened its doors in 1938, was closed as a neighborhood school a number a years ago, but was rented by the School Committee to the Visiting Nurses Association and later to the SEEM Collaborative until 2011.
The Russo family purchased the building from the town in autumn of 2011 and have converted the structure into a three-unit luxury condominium building. Each unit boasts 3,000 square feet of living space, complete with three bedrooms and three bathrooms, 10-foot heigh ceilings, and built-in garages.
"The East School has been part of the Beacon Street neighborhood for over 70 years. But vacant buildings do not lend themselves to preservation," said Warren during last week's Board of Selectmen meeting. "The easiest option would be to demolish the building for a parking lot to relieve spring Little League parking."
"The East School is a perfect example that preservation works. The outcome is a win for the town and the character of the neighborhood. They surely shined the spotlight on one of Stoneham's distinct places," the Historical Commission chair furthered.
In the late spring of 2011, the School Committee decided to declare both the East and North Schools as surplus property after a five-year lease with the SEEM Collaborative expired. The School Committee had hoped to renew the rental deal, but the quasi-public special education provider instead opted to move to neighboring Melrose.
In July, Town Administrator David Ragucci sought requests-for-proposals from suitors interested in purchasing the two municipal buildings.
Though town officials doubted anyone would emerge to adaptively reuse the antiquated buildings — popular belief was that the cost of remediating hazardous materials and bringing the structures up to American Disabilities Act standards would prove cost prohibitive —the Russo's submitted a proposal to do just that.
In October of 2011, Town Meeting approved a warrant article that rezoned the Beacon Street facility for residential uses and also approved the sale of the property to the local residents.
Making the sale even more desirable, the Russo's also agreed to give back to the town a portion of the site, so it could be used for parking for Little League games. The family is also planning on installing new playground equipment at the site, and that work is expected to be finished by the end of this summer.
"Larry and Bee Russo read the RFP and immediately saw the wisdom in repurposing the East School into residential living space that returned the property to the town's tax roles," said Warren of the family's $300,000 bid for the site. "But the Russo's went beyond the requirements by donating parking spaces on the north side of their new home and renovating the playground equipment on the south side."
In a special project not originally envisioned for the redevelopment, the Russo's also installed "Green Monster" style seating in the attic space of the old school, so the grandparents can watch their relatives' baseball games from their home.
"The people who have been through the building are wowed by the attention to detail, especially the preservation of the front and side elevations. We actually pulled this off without altering the exterior of the building one bit," said Larry Russo, before accepting the honor at the recent Selectmen's meeting.
© The Stoneham Independent