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North Bennet Street School looks to the future

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  April 25, 2011 09:47 AM

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(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)

North Bennet Street School President Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez discusses the progress on an arts-and-crafts-style bookshelf with second-year cabinet- and furniture-making student Tim McCann, 32, who lives in Cambridge.

Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez is an evangelist for the benefits of manual training.

The president of the North Bennet Street School believes that learning traditional handicrafts imparts a way of thinking that “borders on a kind of morality, or an involvement with quality and excellence that is really hard to attain” through academic pursuits.

In his five years as president, the 61-year-old has made this belief manifest in the lives of students, reviving a century-old partnership with the John Eliot K-8 School and forging new partnerships with the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Bunker Hill Community College, Historic Boston Incorporated and other institutions.

Now Gómez-Ibáñez hopes to guide the venerable institution through the most ambitious transition in its 126-year history, transporting its eight traditional hand-skills programs to a former city printing building that would see it through another century or two.

A low-key campaigner, Gómez-Ibáñez speaks softly and calmly, but he is nonetheless possessed by a passion for his cause. His fervor might be less persuasive if he didn’t make it clear that learning a traditional craft had changed the course of his own life.

Fifteen years ago, Gómez-Ibáñez was a successful architect running his own firm and growing increasing distant from the work he truly loved doing.

“The more successful you get at architecture, the more you kind of stop doing architecture. You write letters and make phone calls,” Gómez-Ibáñez said in a recent interview. “As a firm principal, you get distanced from what drew you to the profession in the first place.

He needed a change, so in 1997, Gómez-Ibáñez sold his firm and came to the North Bennet Street School as a student in its cabinet- and furniture-making program. He wanted to take a hiatus from his career, he said, and figure out what to do with the rest of his life. It didn’t take long.

“As soon as I got here, I realized this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” he said. “It was not an accident that I chose North Bennet Street School as a place to take my time out. It was predetermined. I just didn’t know it.”

Gómez-Ibáñez found great satisfaction in seeing finished work at the end of the day rather than the Sisyphean paper-shuffling that came with running an architectural firm.

“When you do work with your hands, you leave at the end of every day, you’ve actually done something,” he said. “Whereas in my previous life, I came to work with a list of things to do, and it was a very rare day that I left work without a list of things to do that was as long or longer.”

But in 2006, he was persuaded to leave his workshop and return to an office by the opportunity to lead the school that had rescued him the first time around.

“The only reason I would agree to take a desk job again is because it was here at this school and it’s such a great place to be,” he said. “The school made a huge difference in my life and it’s a pleasure to be here and see it make a difference in a lot of other people’s lives.”

The school has many boosters in the neighborhood, around the region and throughout the world. One big supporter is the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association, which has for many years donated equipment to the school. The association’s president, William Anderson, 77, is a retired carpenter and said he really appreciates the variety of programs the school offers and the level of skill it helps students develop.

“A lot of craftsmen have come from here, and they do wonderful work,” Anderson said. “And the instruction is superb, the facility’s great. … They have everything here, from rough carpentry to building cabinets and furniture. … When you come here, you fall in love with it.”

Founded in 1881 as a community service organization by Pauline Agassiz Shaw, the daughter of Harvard paleontologist Louis Agassiz, the school has played many roles throughout its history. In addition to a program teaching job skills to new immigrants to help them find employment, it was the site of the city’s first credit union, branch library, kindergarten and day-care center for the children of working mothers.

Over time, many of Agassiz Shaw’s innovations were spun off to other locations or taken up by local government, and since about 1920 the school has focused on teaching traditional hand skills. Its eight fulltime programs include locksmithing, bookbinding, jewelry making and repair, violin making and repair, piano technology, cabinet and furniture making, carpentry and preservation carpentry.

Those programs enroll about 150 students each year, ranging from 18-55 years old, with an additional 500-600 students taking part in continuing education courses.

One of the programs eventually subsumed by the city of Boston was the woodworking class for Eliot School students that the North Bennet Street School began offering in the 1890s. A 1917 law made shop class a mandatory offering at public schools and rendered that program obsolete, but cutbacks over the past two decades have forced many schools to reduce or cancel art, music and shop classes.

Last year, the North Bennet Street School resumed the work they began more than 100 years ago.

Beginning as a pilot program for sixth-graders last spring, the program has now expanded to seventh and eighth grades thanks to about $80,000 in foundation grants that will keep it going for another two school years. And Gómez-Ibáñez hopes to see the program expand further, because, as he said, “We still believe that hand-skills training is fundamental to building the kind of person that we want to be.”

“When the students come in here from the Eliot School and they make something out of wood, they know exactly whether it’s good, bad or indifferent because it’s obvious,” he said. “If it’s sawn straight, if it’s made correctly, you can see. So you don’t need a test, you don’t need a teacher to say, ‘Yes, you did that well.’ … What you’re doing is you’re working to your own standards. You look at it, and you can dispassionately say, is that good enough for me? And if not, you can do it again or make it better.”

And there are additional benefits, Gómez-Ibáñez said, for students who are still looking for the area in which they excel.

“The second part of it is that there are certain people who don’t thrive in an academic setting. And those people are the ones that thrive in our setting,” he said. “So you see students from the Eliot School that weren’t stars in one class but then become stars in our class. And that changes their attitude toward school.”

But that program, which required the surrender of the school’s faculty lounge to create a new workshop, is one of many things that has put increasing stress on the school’s limited space.

Starting out at 39 North Bennet St., which Agassiz Shaw rented in 1881 and bought in 1885, the school later expanded into 29 North Bennet and two adjoining townhouses on Tileston Street, all of which are internally connected to form a complex maze of workshops and offices.

By the 1980s, though, the school had begun running short on space. Its leadership at the time ended the school’s nearly century-old child-care program and eliminated any other uses of its space unrelated to its central mission. Around 2000, Gómez-Ibáñez said, the Boston Redevelopment Authority offered the school a building in Charlestown Navy Yard for its relocation, but its board of directors rejected the offer because they found the building’s size and the 99-year lease both insufficient.

By 2005, it became necessary to move the carpentry and preservation carpentry programs to a rented facility off Massachusetts Avenue in Arlington, placing about a quarter of its students 7.5 miles away from the North End campus, where Gómez-Ibáñez said they “feel disconnected” from the rest of the school.

Gómez-Ibáñez wants to bring those students back to the North End and put all the school’s programs under one roof once again, and he thinks he has a solution. With the city printing plant at the corner of North and Richmond streets shut down last summer, there is an empty building in the North End that is both large enough for the school and structurally suited to its purposes. And moving the trade school a few blocks south would free up its buildings for use by the Eliot K-8 School, the only public school in the neighborhood and one that is desperate for space.

“We really need an appropriate space, and the printing plant seems to us to be just about the chance of a lifetime, at least institutionally,” Gómez-Ibáñez said last month at a meeting of the North End/Waterfront Neighborhood Council. “If we can’t do that, we’ll have to regroup and look at other possibilities outside the North End, because I can’t see a building in the North End ever coming up that would be good for us, and this one is perfect for us. It’s better than good for us. It’s absolutely perfect.”

For months, Gómez-Ibáñez has tried to woo the city and build community support, offering to buy the printing building and the adjacent former police station and sell the city the school’s buildings or to even make a straight trade, though its buildings are assessed at about $1 million more. So far, the mayor and other city officials have listened to the proposal with interest but have not been willing to commit to a deal.

Gómez-Ibáñez has had more luck winning the neighborhood’s backing. In January, the North End/Waterfront Residents’ Association voted to support the plan, and members of the neighborhood council have expressed their personal support for the plan, though the council has not held a vote.

Neighborhood parents, many of them frustrated with the lack of space at the Eliot School, have offered their support for the plan. At recent meetings of both the neighborhood council and the residents association, North End father Doug Bowen-Flynn gave presentations on local parents’ efforts to persuade the city to expand the school and singled out Gómez-Ibáñez’s offer as the best option for expanding the Eliot.

Though he’s still waiting to hear from the city, Gómez-Ibáñez is hopeful that the growing neighborhood support will help persuade Mayor Thomas M. Menino that the building swap is what’s right for the North End. He was happy to learn that Bowen-Flynn and other neighborhood parents had begun to publicly express their backing for the plan.

“That was nice. I was glad, because we would be tickled pink if that were to be able to happen,” he said. “They’re not really focused on North Bennet Street School, but I’m hoping that we will stay in as a part of the process.”

For a gallery of photos from the school, click here.

Email Jeremy C. Fox at jeremycfox@gmail.com.

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(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)


Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez in his office at the North Bennet Street School. Gómez-Ibáñez said, “The only reason I would agree to take a desk job again is because it was here at this school and it’s such a great place to be.”

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