Utica's Roosevelt School is Inspiration for Theatre Project

Utica's Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School, now with a crumbling brick exterior and overgrown foliage, stands in stark contrast to the educational institution it once was.  Katherine Delesalle ’14, Elizabeth Buchanan ’15 and Allison Schuette ’16 are creating a site-specific theater performance based on the deteriorating building and its various purposes.  In their Levitt Group project titled “BRICKS: An Intersection of Architecture and Community,” the group is investigating the relationship between the city’s physical identity and its surrounding community.

Opened in 1893, The Roosevelt School was designed by 1870 Hamilton graduate and architect F.H. Gouge.  The building has not served as a school since Roosevelt closed in 1992.  Buchanan explained how the abandonment of this building is an “unfortunate example of the broken window theory,” a psychological concept where people are apt to ignore the maintenance of other neighboring buildings when a nearby structure falls into poor condition, ultimately resulting in a city’s decay.

Professor of Theatre Carole Bellini-Sharp was inspired by the school’s appearance to develop a theatrical project portraying the life cycle of the building.  She proposed the performance idea to Assistant Professor of Theatre Andrew Holland, and they are currently advising the group.  To Buchanan, the performance will answer the question, “If the site could speak, what would it say?”

Delesalle hopes to “raise awareness about the building and show how it can impact a community.”  While she “believes this one may not be saved, people need to take ownership of other spaces if they wish to fix them.”  The group wants to prevent other buildings from reaching a similarly precarious state.

Buchanan is discovering what community roles the Roosevelt school previously filled while in operation.  She will then compare these to the roles magnet schools fulfilled when Roosevelt closed.  After reading literature on architectural theory and neighborhood social networks, she hopes to uncover what needs are no longer met by the schools and how to address the associated issues. 

Delesalle stressed the importance of stories and how they are “often tied to specific meaningful sites and an understanding of ‘home.’”  She is examining the connection between the building and community, and “how this relationship manifests through the stories that residents tell and their overall sense of self.”

Finally, Schuette is studying two other schools to find how they differ in both appearance and impact on their communities.  If time permits, she will take photographs at each location and sketch prominent features. 

Every week, the group puts aside their separate academic focuses and spends six hours volunteering at the Johnson Park and Parkway Senior Centers.  Ideally, this will offer the threesome an opportunity to establish connections with local residents who can share their experiences and stories about the school, whether as a student, teacher, city official or citizen.  Delesalle believes the stories will “provide an essential piece to the final production.” 

The school has been abandoned for more than 20 years, and finding primary documents is difficult.  The group was hoping to work with floor plans, but all their efforts to find them have been unsuccessful.  However, as a result of their volunteer activities and attendance at local events, the students have been able to connect with quite a few knowledgeable members of the community.

Their performance piece’s success depends on incorporating local history and community involvement. Many citizens have contributed anecdotes and background information, giving the group meaningful material for their work.  The group hopes to uncover many stories that will bring the building to life, creating a complete and accurate representation of the community’s engagement with the school and the building’s meaning to the neighborhood.

Delesalle is a graduate of Middlesex School (Mass.).  Buchanan is a graduate of Newton Country Day School (Mass.).  Schuette is a graduate of Kinkaid High School (Texas).

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