STEM Comes to the City

L and N Station, World’s Fair Park, Knoxville, February 2011
I attended the open house at the L and N Station for the new Science Technology Engineering and Math school Tuesday night. I must have seen the L and N for the first time in early 1982, but my first memories of the building are of going to the Ruby Tuesday’s and the L and N Seafood restaurants in the mid to late 1980’s. More recently, I attended a catered event there.
Sign Greeting Visitors to the Open House, Tile in Main Area
When the announcement was made that the school system intended to convert the building into a school, I was immediately skeptical. I really didn’t think they would do it. It appeared no feasibility study had been done, funding is tight and the announcement itself fell during a political season making it even more suspect.
A Very Nice Administrative Office, L and N Station, Knoxville
Fast forward a few months and a principal has been named, new (inflated) costs have been announced and the building appears headed for a massive conversion. The idea has been met with negativity, if not downright derisiveness, in the comments on Knoxnews. Some of the questions seem legitimate, such as where will students and staff park, while others seem more spurious, such as the comments citing the homeless shelters blocks away as somehow a danger.
View from top of the stairwell. A long fall for students and other hurled objects.

Still, many of the criticisms seem to have some validity. Some people have asked why we need this school. I certainly had not heard a large public outcry for a new STEM program. They exist at other schools already and some have wondered if this program won’t weaken the others. Money is tight enough that positions – particularly librarians – were eliminated from last year’s budget, yet the millions for this new project, we are told, are readily available on short notice. A number of area schools are in dire need of repair, yet they will go wanting while this renovation moves forward.

“Classroom #8” I’m guessing this wall has to go.
The other part of the plan that bothers me has to do with the choice of this particular building. I’m not completely sure why it feels like an inappropriate use of a fine historical building, but I have to admit it does. The building is filled with leaded glass, stain glass, gorgeous tile work and rich woods that seem more appropriate to a boutique hotel or a very nice condominium development or some sort of visitor’s center. I think of schools as more practical or utilitarian.
Obviously, if these ideas were economically appealing, someone would have taken the opportunity to make the money involved. The building has, apparently, been under-utilized for a long time and, perhaps, with a large tenant, it will be preserved. I hope it’s character isn’t damaged by the internal reconfiguration that will be required.

Upstairs hallway. Again, notice the exquisite tile.
The only sign on this particular Tuesday night that the building will become a school were the plain, large placards placed in various areas denoting uses for each are such as administrative offices, counseling offices, a library or classrooms. A woman handed out applications and talked to people who were interested. Many of those touring were families with middle school age children.

Just your average garden-variety library.

Plenty of room for computers. Do rooms have souls? Can they be violated?
When I walked into the area labeled “Library,” I immediately wondered where the books would be placed. The walls are dominated by opulent windows and other architectural ornamentation. It turns out I wasn’t the only one who wondered. A father and two teenagers surveyed the room as I took photographs. The young girl said, “Where will they put the books?” The boy, who appeared to be slightly older said with a very serious expression, “We won’t need books, we’ll have computers.” The girl curled her lip revealing a large set of braces and let out a long, loud moan. I thanked her for librarians everywhere. Her brother looked disgusted and her father offered helpfully, “I think they’ll have some free-standing shelves.” I wanted to take the girl home and adopt her. 

Beautiful outside entrance to the “library.”
So, my visit didn’t change my perspective. I wish a better proposal had presented itself. I wish my tax money was going elsewhere. I wish books were valued, though they seem to be less so with each passing year. In the end, what can you do? Have faith that old buildings will outlast our folly and that young girls in braces will still carry a passion for books after I’m dead and gone.
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