A piece of city history: An insider’s look at Memorial Boulevard School

Inside the theater of Memorial Boulevard School. (Photo by Janelle Morelli)

TAYLOR MURCHISON-GALLAGHER

STAFF WRITER

Every day, Bristol residents and out-of-town visitors drive along South Street and the Memorial Boulevard, only to pass by a piece of history that will soon be reinstated into the community.

The Memorial Boulevard School building was first constructed in the 1920s, and was donated to the City of Bristol by the prominent Rockwell family.

Originally, it served as Bristol High School, which is still declared along the facade, as the cornerstones (engraved stone plaques near the top of the building) read “Bristol High School.” After the establishment of Bristol Eastern and Bristol Central high schools, MBS became Memorial Boulevard School, a middle school. That facility closed after the construction of the two kindergarten through eighth grade schools: Greene-Hills and West Bristol.

The majesty of the building doesn’t stop outside. After it was closed as a school in 2012, there was much discussion regarding the theater contained inside, and how it could be saved or repurposed.

Standing on the stage and gazing upon the vacant seats, the view is reminiscent of the opening scenes of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera.” While a crystal chandelier may not have fallen into the crowd at MBS, a glass chandelier overlooks the crimson upholstered seats that are strewn with bits of the ceiling that fell.

And Webber’s idea that ghosts linger on continues throughout the classrooms – some of which still have class lists posted near the doors, or white boards that read that former students “were here.”

“You can see that we have these old classrooms that work very well for a modern classroom, they’ve got very tall ceiling heights. The idea is everything is going to be completely renovated,” said Tim Callahan, a member of the Bristol Board of Education facilities department, and the project manager for the building project.

Memorial Boulevard School.

Callahan explained that because of the building’s status on the national and state historic registry, much of the renovation work will be done on the inside. Callahan explained this is also due to the fact that the building is still structurally sound, though it will require updating to meet today’s standards and codes.

Unlike Webber’s opera house, you won’t find a musical genius living in the basement. Instead, the bottom floor is home to a gymnasium, and the ghost of a swimming pool which has been long covered. While the pool is no longer accessible, the locker rooms off of the pool area are, and feature marble accenting, which Callahan said may be repurposed elsewhere in the building.

Once renovated, the auditorium and theater are proposed to seat 750 people. Since the City previously wanted to renovate the auditorium, $13 million had already been set aside for that project.

Callahan explained that those funds will still be used for the project, which is slated to cost approximately $54.8 million. He said that about $20 million will come from the city, and that the project will be eligible for up to 64 percent reimbursement from the state, as state funding has already been secured through a grant.

“The state grant we’ve applied for is for 525 students, grades 6 through 12,” said Callahan. The grant also specifies that the school must be an intradistrict arts magnet school, which means all students will be Bristol students.

Callahan said that the proposed status for the completed building would be non-simultaneous use, meaning that the community would still have access to the theater, even if the school portion of the building wasn’t accessible during those hours.

But, plans of that kind are still considered rough drafts, even as the proposed opening of the 2020-21 or the 2021-22 school year looms closer. The only contracts that have been signed have secured an architect (Quisenberry Acari and Malik), a constructor (a joint venture between D’Amato Construction and Downes Construction), and an environmental hygienist (Eagle Environmental). Much of the architectural work to date has been drafting ways to create multifunctional spaces.

The programming committee, made of Bristol education professional staff, is still in the process of creating curriculum. Superintendent of Schools Sue Moreau has said at MBIAMS committee and BOE meetings that this will not be a performance arts school  it will focus on the technical aspects of performance, such as lighting and audio, or scene design.

A meeting schedule for the MBIAMS committee can be found on the BOE and the city website, as can meeting agendas and meeting minutes.

To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Taylor Murchison-Gallagher, email her at TMurchison@BristolObserver.com.