The Highland Building has long history, is now vacant

[Ed. note: The Mosquito occasionally prints articles looking back at the town’s history. The Highland Building is a former school building that has been vacant for many years. Much of this article was published previously.]

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1908: First town-wide schoolhouse

Built in 1908, the Highland Building is one of the oldest public buildings in Carlisle. Situated on “schoolhouse hill” at the top of the knoll on School Street, Highland was built to house all Carlisle students in grades 1-8. However, the decision to build the first centralized schoolhouse did not come easily. According to The History of Carlisle, by S.A. Bull, in 1892 the townspeople decided that Carlisle had grown large enough to support a centralized school system. After 16 years of discussion, in February of 1908, $8,325 was appropriated, and work finally began on the 7,500 square-foot building. The first class met in Highland in December of 1908. 

The new central schoolhouse became the focal point of the town. By the 1930s electric lights and indoor plumbing were installed. (For an in-depth history of the Highland School, see: “The Highland School reaches for the century mark,” January 13, 2006.)

1940–1950: Growth

In the 1930s and 1940s school enrollment remained at about 100 students. With the post-war baby boom, however, enrollment swelled to 139 in 1951. By 1954, to relieve overcrowding at Highland, students were housed in the Unitarian Church, the library and the brick schoolhouse. 

1950–1970: Campus changes

  In response to the expanding school population, the Spalding Building was constructed in 1956–1957. The school population continued to grow and the town responded by adding the Wilkins (1963) and Robbins (1969) buildings. By 1970 the town population had increased to 2,871 from a pre- World War II level of approximately 700. Most students were now housed in the new Spalding, Wilkins and Robbins buildings, and by 1975 Highland housed only the 5th grade. 

1980–1992: Restore for Town Offices?

By 1985, the Highland Building was in need of repair and was considered outdated. Because Highland is a wood-framed structure, the state would not reimburse the town for the cost of repairs. In 1986, the last students were moved into the other buildings and Highland was used mainly as cold storage while the town tried to determine its future. In 1986 the town was looking for additional municipal space and also considering school expansion. Highland was considered for both, but high repair costs and lack of handicapped accessibility worked against it. The School Building Committee (SBC) stated that deciding what to do with the Highland School was, “perhaps one of the toughest and most emotional options for the SBC.” 

In 1988–1989 and 1992 the town again considered using Highland for town offices, but again determined that repairs would be too costly. Peter Snyder, in a study presented to the Board of Selectmen, suggested that the School Committee transfer custody of the building to the town, perform the necessary repairs, install a wheelchair lift on the front porch and use the newly renovated Highland building for town offices. In his report he states “Perhaps one of the best reasons to renovate the Highland Building is that we already own the building. There is no land to buy or to develop, no expensive site work or roads to build, no new building to plan or to construct, no well to drill or septic system to build. In the end we would have an important and historic building saved, preserved and put to good use.” At Town Meeting in 1993, although funding was approved for further study, the high cost of restoration as well as concerns about security of the school caused the Board of Selectmen to decide against spending additional funds on architectural plans. The town offices were later constructed on the Conant Land and Highland remained vacant while the town considered its options.

1994–2007: Highland becomes artists’ studios

In 1994, at the suggestion of several local artists, the Carlisle School Committee (CSC) leased Highland to the Emerson Umbrella for use as artists’ studios. The original ten-year lease called for the Umbrella to pay $1 annual rent and to bear responsibility for all utilities, maintenance and repair of the building. The lease reads: “The lessee shall, at its own expense, keep said premises in good order and repair and in at least as good condition as they are in at the commencement of said term.” However over the period of the first ten-year lease, Highland had fallen into a state of disrepair. In 2007, after a subsequent three-year lease expired, the School Committee and Emerson Umbrella came to an impasse over whether the extension of a new long-term lease should occur before or after major repairs were done. The lease was not renewed and the building was again vacated. 

2006–2008: No longer part 

of school’s plans

In 2006 the School Committee voted that Highland was no longer suitable for school use, and would therefore not be considered part of the school’s Master Plan. The Board of Selectmen (BOS), in 2008, appointed a committee (Highland I) to investigate preserving Highland.

2009: Raze or restore?

In 2009, Town Meeting voted to hand control of the 106-year-old building to the BOS and, by a 2. 5 to 1 margin, Town Meeting voted to appropriate $445,000 in Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds to preserve the building and prevent further deterioration while the town determined the most appropriate use for the building. Due to the support for restoration, the Selectmen decided not to move a second Warrant Article, which would have authorized demolition of the building.

2010–2014: 

Stabilization and studies

In 2010 the Selectmen commissioned a second committee (Highland II) to stabilize the building and to identify potential users. In 2011, Highland II presented its recommendations for potential users, which included the library, the Historical Society and the Recreation Commission. Some envisioned a display of the historic Gettysburg Collection on the second floor. The Selectmen, however, did not support the concept of museum-like displays in Highland. According to Selectman Tim Hult, the concept of a museum was economically difficult and not broad enough for full community use.

By 2012, the Highland exterior was restored and the stabilization complete. The Selectmen appointed a third committee (Highland III) to further research possible uses, funding sources and management strategies. The committee met over the following year, interviewed prospective users and conducted a town survey. 

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This cartoon by Thomas Rafterry was first published in 2009

In February, 2014, the Highland Committee presented its final report to the Selectmen, which recommended that the building be restored and used as a Community/Cultural Center. A schematic design showed two meeting rooms and bathrooms in the lowest level; a possible fitness center,

multipurpose room and storage spaces on the first floor; and large event hall, warming kitchen and bathrooms on the second floor. The committee recommended a Town Meeting Warrant Article to request $85,000 for further design and development of such a project, with the total cost estimated at roughly $3 million, be funded through a combination of bonding, CPA funding, grants and private fundraising. The Selectmen opposed the plan and the Warrant Article failed at Town Meeting. 

2018: Storage

In October of 2018, the Selectmen approved an Eagle Scout project by Douglas Stevenson to build shelving and a workbench in the basement to be used by the Council on Aging to store medical equipment that is loaned to residents. ∆