Barnes School Senior Housing Celebrates Milestone

By John Lynds

Before the first tenant moved into the Barnes School Senior Housing Development ten years ago, East Boston Community Development Corporation (CDC) Executive Director Al Caldareli had been trying for years to convert the abandoned former school and historic building into housing.

“The process goes back 15-20 years,” said Caldareli. “The school closed in the 1980s and it was a while before the city put the building out to bid.”

However, once the city committed to selling the Classical Revival style building, Caldareli and the CDC jumped at the opportunity to reactivate the historic building into a thriving residential development for the neighborhood’s elderly population living on a fixed income.

Last week, the CDC celebrated a milestone as the award winning Barnes School celebrated its 10-year anniversary.

“I’ve been doing this for over 40 years, so 10 years doesn’t seem like a long time,” joked Caldareli. “One of the reasons for last week’s celebration was to celebrate the kind of buildings that can get done with the type of funding in the past. It’s a reminder now of how things have changed and how hard it is to get HUD funding for these types of projects.”

While the project’s aim at the time was to create a comfortable living environment for area seniors and help them remain in the neighborhood in which they lived their entire lives as rents skyrocketed, the CDC also focused on a historic preservation of the building.

“It was East Boston’s first high school,” explained Caldareli. “The original high school back in the late 1800s was a room in the back of the building where the District A-7 police station is. A lot of East Boston children then went into trades and didn’t go on to high school so residents at the time fought for higher education for their children. The result was this beautiful building that was built in the Classical style to signal that East Boston students were going to get a classical education in the neighborhood. I just loved the history of the building and it has a great future now. It’s just fantastic.”

Built in 1897, the Barnes School first served as an East Boston high school, and later became a middle school. In the mid-1980s, the school was closed and left without heat or regular maintenance for decades. The abandoned school became a magnet for graffiti, break-ins and loitering.

Beginning in 2006, the building, which resembles an Italian palazzo, underwent a vast transformation from a neglected school building to a pristine elderly housing complex. The building was returned to its original turn of the century magnificence with its marble paneled walls, terrazzo floors, vaulted plaster ceilings and abundant ornamental plaster. The building’s exterior underwent extensive masonry restoration and the decorative fencing was repaired.

The building now includes a generous community space, 74 apartments for low-income seniors, some of whom attended the Barnes School as students, and an adult day care program run by the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center.

The Barnes was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006 and won the 2008 Preservation Achievement Award from the Boston Preservation Alliance.

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