Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Providence Montessori Middle brings new life to Florence Crittenton Home structure

Teacher Keyla Bueno taught a Spanish class at Providence Montessori Middle School. In renovating the early 1800s house into the school, architect Matthew Brooks preserved these original poplar floors and exposed structural brick.
Teacher Keyla Bueno taught a Spanish class at Providence Montessori Middle School. In renovating the early 1800s house into the school, architect Matthew Brooks preserved these original poplar floors and exposed structural brick. Herald-Leader

When the House of Mercy opened in 1894, the secluded old home at 519 West Fourth Street seemed like a good place to help "fallen" women. It was in an out-of-the-way part of town, near what was then called the Eastern Kentucky Lunatic Asylum.

What became the Florence Crittenton Home did a lot to help pregnant girls and young mothers with infants for 119 years until last November, when changing state social-work policies forced it to close for lack of funds.

Over the past couple of years, that out-of-the-way neighborhood has been experiencing a rebirth, with a heavy emphasis on education.

The former site of what is now called Eastern State Hospital is becoming the campus of Bluegrass Community and Technical College. Transylvania University has turned an old industrial strip into an athletics complex.

So it is fitting that the old House of Mercy, a handsome brick home that dates to around the 1840s, has been beautifully transformed for a new life as Providence Montessori Middle School.

The school recently completed an extensive renovation, accomplished quickly so fall-term classes could begin. The result will be on display from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday during a public open house. The presidents of Transylvania and BCTC are scheduled to attend.

"This summer was a blur," said Vivian Langefeld, the Montessori school's director. "We worked day and night."

Despite a higher offer from Transylvania, the Florence Crittenton Home board last March sold the 2.5-acre property to the Montessori school for $400,100 — well below market value — to make sure the historic structure wasn't demolished.

With a combination of donations, fundraising and loans, the school did an extensive renovation led by Matthew Brooks, a principal in the Lexington architecture firm Alt32, and Chip Crawford and Drew McLellan of Crawford Builders. Their work recently earned a Community Preservation Award from the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation.

"It would have been a shame to have lost this place," Langefeld said.

In addition to the tight schedule, Brooks said the biggest challenge was opening up space and light in the building, which had been added to three times since the late 1800s, without compromising structural integrity. The school's requirement for big, open spaces was much different from the many small rooms the Crittenton Home needed.

Old carpets were pulled up and hardwood floors, including many of the original poplar planks, were restored. Original fireplaces were kept and structural brick was exposed on many interior walls to add to the charm.

Alt32's staff also designed and built the school's furniture and lockers from birch plywood, using a high-tech router capable of precisely replicating intricate shapes.

Brooks had a special interest in the project: his daughter will be a student there next year. He said the light-filled space now reminds him of Lexington's original Montessori school in the St. Peter Claver Catholic Church Parish Hall down the street, where he attended kindergarten in 1972. (In another bit of neighborhood improvement, the church is now restoring and building an addition to that hall.)

In Montessori schools, children learn by doing in an environment with a lot of freedom and self-direction. This school, which has 38 students in 7th and 8th grades, uses small-scale urban agriculture as a vehicle for teaching everything from science to entrepreneurship.

Langefeld said the next step will be to fill the campus grounds with vegetable gardens, rain gardens, berry bushes and fruit trees. Chicken coops and beehives will be added in the spring so students can care for them and sell the eggs and honey.

"We do an entrepreneurial program where they all learn about supply and demand, profit and loss and so forth," she said.

The house came with a good commercial kitchen, which students use for baking products to sell and fixing their own lunch once a week. A large room on the back will be turned into a shop with woodworking tools.

The school also hopes to develop cooperative programs with Transylvania and BCTC, and to engage residents and businesses in the surrounding neighborhood.

"Montessori's vision for the adolescent was a non-institutional setting," Langefeld said. "So this is perfect for that kind of environment, where it feels like they are more a part of a community."

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