Restoration work is expected to resume later this year on Brentwood’s oldest schoolhouse, following a delay caused by a controversy in the school district that owns it.
The octagonal Modern Times Schoolhouse was built in 1857 by residents of Modern Times, a utopian settlement of about 150 people that existed from 1851 to 1864 on 90 acres in what is now Brentwood.
“When you look at the history of a place, and you preserve the history of a place, it gives you a sense of home, it gives you a sense of pride,” said Ellen Edelstein, president of the Brentwood Historical Society. “Especially when the history is as positive as the history of this community was.”
The Modern Times society had no criminal justice system, money or taxes, and women were allowed to vote, said Edelstein, who is spearheading the effort to get the structure restored and reopened to the public for educational purposes.
The egalitarian society operated on a philosophy that emphasized individual liberty and rejected greed, with sovereignty of the individual viewed as sacred. It eventually unraveled during the Civil War due to economic pressures and an influx of outsiders with differing philosophies.
Preserving the schoolhouse, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is critical for the Brentwood community to remain connected to its unique past, Edelstein said.
Donated to the Brentwood School District in 1988, the 31-foot-wide building originally had cedar shingles on the roof and a glass ceiling to let in light. It was used as a school in the community from 1857-1907.
Now the structure sits on the campus of the Anthony F. Felicio Administration Center.
Restoration efforts have started and stopped over the years for different reasons, including challenges obtaining funding in the early 2000s and the sudden death of several people who had been champions for the restoration cause, Edelstein said.
The most recent effort by the Brentwood school district to pursue repairs halted when it became public last year that school board member Maria Gonzalez-Prescod’s husband stood to benefit financially by $8,500 to repair the schoolhouse, according to a letter from school board president Robert Feliciano.
He said Gonzalez-Prescod abstained from voting but hadn’t disclosed the conflict of interest to all of her fellow board members prior to a vote that awarded the job to Jackman Prescod’s company, 5th Dimension Design Associates.
After voting July 6 to give the contract to 5th Dimension, the board repealed that vote on Aug. 17, with Feliciano later explaining in a letter that “there were multiple reasons identified why this action should not have been taken.”
“Not all of the board members were aware of her husband’s ownership of the engineering/architectural company,” wrote Feliciano in the Dec. 13 letter to the community. “These omissions were completely unintentional and there was no willful failure to disclose a conflict of interest.”
He said that the funds for the schoolhouse project were from the Brentwood Historical Society, not the school district, so the contract for restoration should have been between the company and the society, even though the school district owns the building.
Edelstein said the project has recovered from the controversy and is moving forward, with the historical society now considering bids from five different contractors, including 5th Dimension.
“There’s nothing exceptional about this hiccup, because when you’re dealing with a public board like a school board, certain protocols have to be followed,” she said. “It’s never a quick process.”
The historical society has secured about $144,000 in grants for the project, and spent about $72,000 of it — prior to the school controversy — on repairing the roof, waterproofing and rotating the building, and other repairs.
Officials expect to select a contractor in the next few weeks. The historical society at that point must obtain a permit in order to release grant funds for the remaining work, which Edelstein said could take some time, though she is optimistic that work will resume later this year.
“The whole concept of Modern Times was exactly what this community is fighting for now: Equity, fairness, openness and neighbors helping neighbors,” Edelstein said. “It’s very much who we are still as a community.”