Chester Barrows Elementary School served the Park View and Edgewood sections of Cranston from about the late 1920’s to 2019. Almost a century! Its namesake was a judge who died in 1931. I do not know how the school came to be named for him.
Creating the Lego version was a Christmastime 2018 project for me. I read that Cranston was going to consolidate the small elementary schools in this part of the city and that Chester Barrows was the most likely to close. This caught my interest, of course, since the whole point of my work is to get aesthetics and cultural importance to be considered when making decisions about public buildings. As I’ve said before, I understand that cities have to open and close public buildings – I also pay property taxes! – but I lament that those values are never weighed.
Indeed, Chester Barrows school is an aesthetic and cultural gem, and that was naturally not factored even one iota by the Cranston Public schools. The district made the ‘savings breakdown’ available, and according to their projections, closing Chester Barrows did indeed save the district more money than closing any of the other schools being considered. I recall the difference being marginal, however; not even $10,000. The city chose to close a building of high historic, architectural, aesthetic, and cultural value in order to save an amount less than 0.01% of their total budget. As I often point out, this is only done with public buildings. Private schools generally consider their older facades to be priceless and use them to create a culture of reverence, academics, and esteem. Closing an older campus building to save a nickel would not even cross the minds of the private school world.
If you’re a Rhode Islander looking at pictures of Barrows and thinking, ‘that looks a lot like my local elementary school,’ you’re correct. Cranston used this design multiple times over, and even some schools in Warwick and other towns use some variation. I once was on a panel discussion on public school architecture and Cranston historian Sandra Moyers pointed this out as old-fashioned New England expediency: it was a good design, and the blueprint only had to be paid for once!
Another reason I reached for this is that I did not have a commission to work on, and a small project for which I could use ‘leftover bricks’ from other commissions was perfect. Like other forms of modeling, smaller works can be challenging. There are some important details that have to be incorporated, but the dimension of the media always creates constraints. But that also creates the fun! For Barrows, it was certainly the doorways. The building has wonderful, classic brickwork around its outside doors (one for boys, one for girls, of course!), and I considered them to be essential to the identity of the structure. But dang, that was hard with Lego brick!
As always, I reached out to the school district and the school to see if they were interested in the work, and as always with Cranston, I didn’t hear a damn thing back. I would have loved to have let the last schoolchildren of Barrows enjoy the work! Luckily, the Auburn Public Library loved the work and its intention, and I put it on display there during the winter of 2019. Librarian Karen McGrath has always lamented the lack of display space that she has at Auburn, so she was delighted to find something that fit!