Buckingham Browne & Nichols is considering a change to its lower campus. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Buckingham Browne & Nichols, the private pre-K-to-12 day school, continues to mull a proposal for reconstructing its lower-school campus, which is surrounded predominantly by single-family homes off Buckingham Street in West Cambridge.

The Cambridge Historical Commission saw “revisioning” plans Nov. 10 to demolish three buildings on the campus, part of a master planning process for BB&N: Its Markham building, which dates back to 1892, would be rebuilt to its original, smaller scale; the remaining two buildings, Kelsey and Morrison, would be demolished to make room for a playfield that will replace a current one, making room for a multi-use building.

The lower campus hasn’t seen renovation for more than 20 years, and it was the coronavirus that provided much of the inspiration. Tents to facilitate outdoor learning were up for much of the pandemic, and the school found “we need as much outdoor space as possible,” said Jennifer Price, head of school at BB&N, to members of the commission.

“We learned very much that schools need flexible spaces, trying to keep kids who do not have them at 6 feet apart … we had we use every square inch of our school to try to make it work,” Price said. “The Kelsey and the Morrison buildings which we’re talking about were not able to [hold students]. Simply, the rooms are just not large enough.”

There are no plans for enrollment growth beyond the roughly 330 kids on the lower campus, Price said. The total school enrollment is around 1,000.

The lower campus now, as seen in a BB&N map …

… and how it could look with a smaller, relocated Markham building and its Kelsey and Morrison buildings gone in plans submitted to the Historical Commission.

Tara Gohlmann, chief financial officer and chief operating officer at BB&N, said the proposal was intended to take the typical classroom size of 400 square feet to 700 square feet and add accessibility to “a number of smaller houses and buildings with lots of stairs and narrow spaces.” From a facilities standpoint, she said, operations would be consolidated and “have a smaller impact on the neighborhood than it does today.”

The configuration that keeps the buildings on the outside is also seen as “better from a security standpoint,” Gohlmann said, long before mass shootings such as the Uvalde attack May 24 resurged as the pandemic faded. “The sad thing about our world today is that these are things that we as administrators need to worry about. It’s another big objective.”

Within the existing campus footprint, the school would have more outdoor space by shifting it from the back corner closer to the academic buildings. There would be a new 6,400-square-foot building for meals, performances and other gatherings, which would be something new for the campus – something big enough to hold every student as a community, said Cynthia Westerman, a consultant serving as the school’s real estate project manager. The number of buildings would go to eight from nine.

Buildings back to the 1890s

The history of the buildings that would be affected was outlined by Sarah Burks, preservation planner at the Historical Commission: Jeanette Markham, originally from Kansas, grew her tutoring into a school that moved eventually into a building constructed for her in1892. When she got engaged and resigned 10 years later, parents and neighbors took over Miss Markham’s School and incorporated it as the Buckingham School for girls. In 1974 it merged with the Browne & Nichols School, a school for boys founded in 1883, and became BB&N.

Similarly, the Kelsey building was built by Cambridge architect Charles McClair for teacher Emily Thackray in 1892. The house remains true to its original design, Burks noted. “Thackray taught for many years at the Cambridge evening high school, which was an opportunity for new immigrants to learn English and to take vocational training [with] other nontraditional high school students. She taught English, German and [stenography],” Burks said. When Thackray retired, the house was bought by Edward Everett Kelsey, a composer and piano teacher at the Boston Conservatory of Music. His daughter Laura Kelsey, also a musician and music teacher, lived in the building. The house was bought by BB&N in 1929 after her death.

The Morrison building went up in 1884. Originally an art studio for Arthur Astor Carey, William and Frances Newell bought the studio and a portion of Carey’s estate in 1892, moving the studio to 6 Buckingham Place. Professor Theodore Morrison and Kathleen Johnston Morrison lived there until BB&N acquired it in 1975.

The campus’s brick building at Parker Street, seen July 15, 2020, still early in the pandemic. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Over the decades, the school has expanded, adding a large brick Georgian revival building at the corner of Parker Street in 1920 and a dedicated school building at 19 Craigie St. in 1967. Most recently, a science building went up in 2001 behind 15 Craigie St., Burks said.

“These buildings are significant for their associations to the social history of Cambridge, and specifically for their relationship to Jeanette Markham … and for the architectural associations with Andrews, Jacques & Rantoul and Charles H. McClare,” Burks said, summing up a staff opinion.

The commission voted to find the three buildings historically significant.

School can resubmit

Kyle Sheffield, an alternate member of the Historical Commission, said it’s challenging to solve for the complex needs of the school and there’s a lot left to be done before the plan is pursued further, especially with regards to engagement with neighbors and the impact of changes on the surroundings. The commission had concerns about whether the proposal was developed enough. “There’s too much uncertainty here or unknown for us to approve any kind of a demolition,” said Chandra Harrington, a member of the commission.

The buildings are considered preserved, but the school can come back “at any time with a different or expanded or more fully fleshed-out proposal and ask the commission to lift that designation,” said Charles Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission.

The Historical Commission’s Burke said May 31 that there has been no more communication from the school since the November presentation.

Joe Clifford, in the communications office of Buckingham Browne & Nichols School, confirmed Monday that since a presentation of the same plan to the Community Development Department on Jan. 19, “nothing significant has changed.”