June 11, 2014

Piece of Town’s Railroad History Becomes Students’ Learning Lab

  • By: Lauren Walser
Credit: J. J. Lamb, Vail Preservation Society
Students in Cienega High School’s construction technology course learn preservation trade skills at the 1915 section foreman house.

It’s the sound of a train whistle -- not a school bell -- that will alert students to the end of the school day at Esmond Station K-8 in Vail, Ariz. With details like that, the new railroad-themed school, set to be completed this summer, is taking its design cues from the town’s rich railroad history.

But the biggest nod to history lies in the 1915 railroad foreman’s house on the campus. And that foreman’s house, in merging the old with the new, has sparked a partnership between the Vail School District and the Vail Preservation Society, which have worked together to create a hands-on learning laboratory for students throughout the district.

Credit: Leith Sinclair, Empire High School
The 1915 section foreman house is now on the campus of the new Esmond Station K-8 school.

Once slated for demolition, the four-room structure was rescued last year by members of the Vail Preservation Society. They purchased the house, and with the support of the school district, parents, and the greater community, they relocated it to the site of the new school near an 1880s rail bed.

“We saw it as a great opportunity to reintroduce that architecture and that history to our community,” says J.J. Lamb, director of the Vail Preservation Society.

Lamb, superintendent Calvin Baker, and other school officials saw it as an opportunity to teach students about history and preservation.

Credit: J. J. Lamb, Vail Preservation Society
The new railroad-themed Esmond Station K-8 school is located near this 1880s rail bed.

“We wanted to look at as many ways as possible for students to really have a close relationship with the building, and to interact with it,” Lamb says. “The idea being that it’s really functional, serving the current needs of the school while inspiring the future.”

For starters, Cienega High School students in Mike Keck’s construction technology classes have been learning new preservation trade skills while rehabilitating the house alongside Keck, preservation specialists, and construction professionals.

Lamb estimates the full restoration will take three years.

Credit: J. J. Lamb, Vail Preservation Society (Top), Kevin Barber AIA, Swaim Associates (Bottom)
Top: The 1915 section foreman’s house was threatened with demolition before it was purchased by the Vail Preservation Society. Bottom: A concept drawing of the foreman’s house, once restoration is complete.

“Our goal for them is to be a part of the project as much as possible,” she says. “Working with students, the rehabilitation is going to take a little longer than it might normally, but it’s well worth it.”

The preservation lessons aren’t limited to the construction technology students. Lamb and other preservation society members have spoken to classes throughout the district, explaining to them the basic principles of preservation, ethics issues, and the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for preservation, among other topics. The contractors and architects involved with the restoration of the foreman’s house have spoken with classes, as well.

“We wanted [the students] to understand that old buildings don’t just magically plop down for you to work on,” Lamb says. “There’s a process.”

Credit: J. J. Lamb, Vail Preservation Society
An advanced photography student at Empire High School documents a window at the 1915 section foreman house.

In addition, advanced photography students at Empire High School have been documenting the building and its rehabilitation.

“It’s so exciting to see how those students interact with the house,” Lamb says. “They really develop a relationship with it. It’s neat to see how they see this historic resource and interpret it.”

To help with the rehabilitation and interpretation of the house, the Vail Preservation Society has organized luncheons with the students and surviving members of the Haro family, who lived in the house from the 1920s until the 1950s. The students can ask the family questions, and the family shares stories from their years growing up in the house, like huddling near the cast iron cook stove in the kitchen to stay warm, or lying on the front porch at night to look at stars.

Credit: Leith Sinclair, Empire High School
Empire High School’s advanced photography students with Congressman Ron Barber, seated left, and the foreman house’s early residents Willie and Lucy Haro, seated center.

“It’s incredible to see the students really connect with another generation and get an understanding of what life was like,” Lamb says. “It leads to a new respect for that historic building.”

Once completed, the foreman’s house will hold administrative offices and, Lamb hopes, a gallery with rotating student-curated exhibits.

“We’re really focused on developing a strong preservation ethic in the community and among our students,” Lamb says. “And the town has grown so rapidly. If we’re able to do things like this, it helps people have an understanding that there’s a real history to this area.”

That history will be on full display for students at Esmond Station K-8.

“The kids are going to see it every day,” Lamb says. “They’re going to walk by it every single day on the way to the playground.”

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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