Hey, Pop, what’s that big thing out behind your corn field, flying saucer?
“Pop” Neilson had a farm on Glen Road in Wilmington for about 30 years. When he died in 1937, he had never imagined what might be built there. 22 years later, the spaceship landed.
The Glen Road School, now the Town Hall, is certainly of an unorthodox style. It is usually described as round, but actually has 17 sides. It cannot be called unique, as the Boutwell School is of a very similar design. Other than Wilmington’s pair, there are no others.
The shape of the building, though, is not its most revolutionary element. It was designed and built in defiance of the architects who had a lock on school design in the late 1950s.
The Town of Wilmington was in a rapid building phase. On the east side of town, Route 93 cut a giant north-south swath that changed everything in town. Avco had just built a $15 million complex on Herb Barrows’ farm, where scientists would work on something called the Apollo project.
Wilmington Plaza was built in 1959. There were five new churches, two Catholic, one Methodist, one Baptist and a meeting hall for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Subdivisions were popping up like mushrooms after a late-summer rain. Could the town build schools fast enough to provide for a rapidly-growing population?
In 1958, there was a proposal to build a school off Glen Road. It was to have a central administrative building with four separate classroom buildings. The sections would be connected by glass corridors, along which there would be some 10,000 thyme plants. The cost was estimated at $1.5 million. When the plans were presented before the School Committee, the Town Crier swiped the plans and published them.
Subsequently, a Town Meeting rejected the plans. A different building committee was formed, the Permanent Building Committee. The key members were former Town Manager Joe Courtney, Paul Niles, Erwin Hanke and Vincent McLain. The committee produced a revolutionary idea, that the town would own the plans for the school.
Home builders could buy a set of plans and build hundreds of homes. Why not apply that to school construction? There was tremendous resistance from the architects of the Bay State. The usual m.o. for an architect was to create a school plan and then give it to several communities, each paying full price.
The committee found an architect who would work under their terms. The result was a 12-room school for 360 pupils, and the town owned the plans. Even as that school was being dedicated, 60 years ago this week, a second school nearly identical in design was under construction off Boutwell Street.
The Glen Road School opened in December 1959. A month later, Gov. Foster Furcolo came to town for a dedication ceremony. The school ran well for 19 years until February 1979 when someone broke in and set a fire in the janitor’s room. It was on a Sunday afternoon and there was nobody in the building. There was some damage in two classrooms and the corridor. Students were put on double-sessions at the Wildwood and Swain schools, and five weeks later, were transferred to space at St. Thomas Church. In the restoration effort, asbestos was found in the school and was removed.
The school reopened that fall, but two years later, it was shut down, due to a budget — cutting measure, Prop. 2-1/2. In 1983, it became the town hall. The building has served in that role for 60 percent of its 60 years.