January 27, 2003

A north Wilmington landmark is getting an extensive makeover. But when it is finished next summer, folks who pass by are going to be hard put to tell that very much happened.

Except for some cosmetic sprucing up and a new playground designed for kids in the intermediate, rather than primary, grades, David W. Harlan School at Barrett and Jefferson Streets will look pretty much like it has since it opened 70 years ago, according to John Read, construction project manager for the Brandywine School District.

Harlan is the first of five school buildings slated for modernization in the $96 million second round of the district's long-term  major capital improvements program. The Harlan work, including planning and associated costs, is budgeted at $7.8 million. Borrowing to finance the local share of the second phase was approved by voters at a referendum in 2001; state taxpayers are putting up 60%.

The state's budget crisis is likely to result in stretching out not only the Brandywine program but also construction and renovations in other public school districts. Harlan, however, is not affected and, as Delaforum recently reported, the Brandywine Board of Education has decided to move ahead as planned with the next round, at Concord High School during the 2003-04 academic year, while pushing back the planning phase of projects at Forwood and Lombardy Elementary Schools and Talley Middle School for at least a year.

Read said that the Harlan job is running about two weeks ahead of schedule and is within budget. Whiting-Turner Constructing Co., the general contractor, is scheduled to turn the building back to Brandywine in June in plenty of time to outfit the place to resume classes in September. Harlan is housed in the nearby Burnett building this year.

As the Harlan project moved into the second half of its construction timetable, officials with eyes on the calendar were able to uncross their fingers. "The period when you discover [unexpected] problems is behind us," Read said. "In renovation work, you always run into little surprises. Things went good and we didn't find any major ones."

That is not to say there were none, but the significant ones turned out to be concentrated on the plus side of the ledger.

The art room on the second floor, for instance, was half of a large classroom which had been divided years ago by the addition of a new wall which split both a double-door entranceway and an ornate wooden bench built into the wall under windows on the opposite side of the room. When the wall was removed, it was discovered that neither the woodwork which framed the doors nor the part of the bench covered by the wall had been damaged.

Similarly, when carpeting was removed, most of the hard-pine original flooring was found to be in pristine, near-mint condition. In only one room had water damage occurred to the extent that the floor was ruined. The plan now is to buff the old lumber and leave most of  it uncovered.

Did Harlan luck out? Hardly, Read said.

"What  happened is that along the way nobody did anything stupid," he said.

Also to be credited is Cantera Construction Co., which built the place. Although 1932 and '33 marked the depth of the Great Depression, the firm apparently did not cut corners. Building Harlan is said to have been a dress rehearsal for constructing the Pierre S. du Pont school building just up the street. Then a junior and senior high school, P.S. was the intended signature piece for Wilmington Public Schools.

If there is any doubt that they, indeed, don't build them like they used to, look at Harlan's interior walls -- all bricks and plaster and several inches thick.

The legacy left by Cantera and those responsible for later modifications at Harlan is paying dividends in this century.

Given the building's distinctive appearance and the role it has played in the history of what long-time residents still call the Ninth Ward, Brandywine renovation planners realized from the beginning that modernization had to be fitted into the traditional with the match being as seamless as possible. "The faculty came up with a long list of [features] they said  we had better not touch," Read said.

Adaptive reuse reaches something of a pinnacle in the octagonal room at the building's southwest corner. It started life as a 'mud room' where kids who used to walk to school and play outdoors in harmony with all kind of weather shed boots and raingear. A library in its most recent incarnation, it will emerge from renovation as a full-fledged media center.

Where the originals could not be adapted, "we did our best to mimic the old look," Read said. A skylight deemed unsafe to preserve, for instance, has been replaced with recessed ceiling lighting disguised as filtering through a skylight.

A portrait of David Harlan is being refurbished and will be rehung in the entrance foyer. Harlan was superintendent of Wilmington schools during the last quarter of the 19th Century.

Be that as it may, the purpose of modernization was not to restore a relic but to produce a school which measures up to current standards, Read explained.

When it reopens, the building will be up to modern standards in every significant respect. "We meet all the [building] codes," he said. It will be entirely handicapped-accessible. Air conditioning has been installed looking to year-around use, which most educators and others regard as inevitable.

A new heating and ventilation system will provide not only individualized control, with thermostats in every room, but also continuous replacement of stale air with fresh. The thermostats, incidentally, will work during operating hours, he said, but a computerized system will override them at night and over weekends to assure energy-saving cutbacks in temperature.

Read noted that not only will its outward appearance belie what has gone on inside the building but even Harlan visitors, staff and students will see only a proverbial iceberg-tip of the extensive renovations. "The greatest portion of what is being done [involves] things that people will never see, but everybody who comes in here will feel them," he said.

Take a Delaforum photo tour to view Harlan renovations in process:


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