New purpose: Longfellow Elementary gets new life as affordable housing

For more than 80 years, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Elementary School stood proud on 4.58 acres along East 140th Street in Collinwood. In 2010 Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) closed the school, which then sat vacant and was ultimately slated for demolition.

The 1924 school was designed by Walter McCornack, who was the official architect for the Cleveland School Board from 1914 to 1925. He designed most of the Cleveland school buildings during this time, as well as schools in Shaker Heights, Cleveland Heights, and East Cleveland.

McCornack was also an advocate for public housing and designed the 1937 Cedar-Central Apartments—one of the first public housing projects in the country.

After trying to save the school, Ward 8 City Council member Mike Polensek worked hard to save Longfellow school, and in 2016 it was designated as a Cleveland Landmark. That same year, Cleveland Restoration Society (CRS) successfully began a three-year campaign to save the iconic school, renovate it, and repurpose it.

The former school is about to open as The Longfellow senior affordable apartments.

“There's so much architectural integrity, but also stability,” recalls CRS director of preservation services & publications Margaret Lann. “There was not a lot of damage done. So going through, we felt like it was a really good opportunity for reuse. Cleveland Restoration Society has been trying to work with the school district, and we had been doing adaptive reuse studies of schools for upwards of 20 years. And this one was perfectly poised.”

Despite a leafy roof that caused some damage and allowed vandals to gain access to the school, steal the copper piping, and subsequently expose the building to asbestos, CMSD agreed to hire Precision Environmental to clean the asbestos and removed the school furniture from the building—prepping it for renovations.

Exterior detail of The Longfellow apartments showing some of the architectural detail from the old schoolExterior detail of The Longfellow apartments showing some of the architectural detail from the old schoolUltimately, CMSD decided not to demolish the building and a land swap was arranged between CMSD and the City of Cleveland—allowing the proposed redevelopment project to move forward.

In 2019, Connecticut-based Vesta Corp. took title to the property with plans to adapt Longfellow School into 94 affordable senior housing units. Vesta worked with Marous Brothers Construction as the design/builder on the project and LDA Architects as the historic preservation consultant.

Anthony Hiti, principal of HD+S Architecture and then-CRS board president, served as the Longfellow School task force lead.

The Longfellow apartment project is now nearly complete, and CRS on Thursday, May 11 will host its 2023 benefit on the restored campus.

The $21 million project converted the former school building and a new addition into 94 affordable one- and two-bedroom senior living apartments—32 units in the school and 62 units in a new construction building on the former athletic field.

The Longfellow is available to those aged 62 and older, and features energy efficient appliances, high ceilings, and historic preservation aspects with the original refurbished floors, original classroom doors, and the school cubicles converted into wardrobes. The gymnasium has been turned into a fitness center and the building has a wellness room, a community center, and plenty of common space. Outdoor spaces include walking trails, a gazebo, and sitting area.

Rents start from $377 per month for a one-bedroom, one-bath, 608-square-foot unit to $1,020 per month for an 821-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bath unit.

The project was completed using both 4% and 9% state low-income housing tax credits, says CRS board member and Marous director of business development Arne Goldman, who adds that the tenants make 30% or less of the area median income.

“This was kind of the pilot for Ohio to do on this project,” he explains. “And it was done very successfully to close the financing gap.”

Lann and Goldman say they hope CRS’ vision for Longfellow will transfer into the preservation of other closed CMSD schools.

A bedroom in one of the apartments in the old school section of the complexA bedroom in one of the apartments in the old school section of the complex“Our goal at CRS was to create a model for Cleveland Metropolitan School District and other districts to follow,” says Goldman. “Instead of demolishing historic, beautiful old structures [we want] to find a way to repurpose them. CRS did exactly what they said they would do; and what CMSD has done, to their credit, is they've got other schools that they decommissioned, and they conducted an RFQ/RFP process in conjunction with the city of Cleveland.”

Goldman says the concept is a winning situation for everyone involved. “[CMSD] would identify a skilled development team to redevelop a historic property and get it out from under the expense of the school district,” he explains. “It also creates good buzz for the school district because they become a willing participant in the process to save beautiful historic structures.”

He says closed schools—and there are 12 in the city’s RFP process—are great neighborhood improvement projects.

“When you look at successful developments, it's not always about making money, it's about everything else the development does” says Goldman. “One of the things about Cleveland schools, they were often the hub of the local neighborhood. It's like tearing the fabric of the local neighborhood when one of these schools close. When you can preserve and repurpose these schools, they regain their position in the neighborhood and they reinvigorate or revitalize the neighborhood. So instead of having an abandoned school, you've got a vibrant senior housing community, or whatever, and it meets the needs of local residents.”

Lann adds that adaptive reuse has become a popular choice that saves both the building and provides a unique environment. “Even though it is challenging, it is definitely doable,” she says of such projects. “We've had a couple Celebration of Preservation award winners in the last few years that have done this very thing.”

Cleveland Restoration Society’s 2023 benefit at The Longfellow, 650 E. 40th St., will be held Thursday, May 11 at 5:30 p.m. Tickets start at $125 and proceeds support CRS preservation programs, including the Heritage Home Program, Sacred Landmarks Support Initiative, Cleveland Civil Rights Trail, and Cleveland’s Historic Black Church Initiative. Tickets must be purchased by Monday, May 8.

Cleveland Restoration Society - LogoCleveland Masterworks is sponsored by the Cleveland Restoration Society, celebrating 50 years of preserving Cleveland’s landmarks and cultural heritage. Cleveland Restoration Society preserves houses through the Heritage Home Program. Experience history by taking a journey on Cleveland’s African American Civil Rights Trail.Become a member today!

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.