EDITORIAL: Competing missions collide on former Lourdes site

Feb. 3—What makes a building historic? Who decides what is and is not a landmark? To what lengths should a community go to preserve and protect its landmarks — and should a property's owner have the final say? Can progress and preservation happen simultaneously?

These are not new questions, but they've gained new significance as Rochester finally faces a decision and a deadline on the fate of the former Lourdes High School on West Center Street.

An abbreviated timeline for Lourdes is straightforward. The original building opened in 1941, with additions in 1958 and the 1980s. The building's last class of seniors graduated in spring 2013, and that fall Lourdes High School moved to a new, $34 million facility on 19th Street Northwest. That same year, Mayo Clinic purchased the former Lourdes building and some adjacent land for $8.9 million.

Little has happened at this site in the past decade. The former focal point and center of activity in one of Rochester oldest neighborhoods became just an empty hull, and a deteriorating one at that. When repeatedly pressed to reveal their long-term plans for the site, Mayo Clinic leaders were largely silent.

Not anymore.

With Mayo's announcement of its $5 billion "Bold. Forward. Unbound. in Rochester." expansion plan, we now know that the former Lourdes site is projected to become a logistics facility. While we're not entirely sure what that means, it doesn't sound like something you create by repurposing an old, leaky, neglected school building. Most, if not all, of the former Lourdes structure will likely need to be demolished to accommodate Mayo's plan.

And so we once again wade into a delicate debate about the inherent value of past-their-prime buildings that are deemed by some to have intrinsic historical value and therefore worthy of preservation from the wrecking ball. Rochester's Heritage Preservation Commission currently is studying the Lourdes site and is expected to bring a recommendation to the city council this month.

Mayo Clinic, to its credit, is doing and saying all the right things. It hasn't yet applied for a demolition permit (thus giving the Preservation Commission time to do its work), and while Mayo has argued that the later additions to the school don't warrant any historic landmark designation, the clinic has indicated a desire to partner with the Heritage Commission as plans for the former Lourdes site move forward.

In other words, Mayo is respecting the process.

But should that process result in any roadblocks to Mayo's plan? There are those who think so. On this very page, in fact, former judge Kevin A. Lund argues that Mayo Clinic should instead transform the building into a community center where troubled and/or homeless young people could find refuge, education and hope for a better life.

We won't further summarize Lund's argument, because you should read it yourself. Youth homelessness is indeed a growing problem in Rochester, and as a former judge, Lund is very aware of the toll it takes on individuals and our community. He's a man on a mission, and it's a noble one.

But here's the hard truth: Mayo Clinic already has a mission — and it's not to repurpose old buildings into community centers.

Mayo Clinic engages in cutting-edge medical research. It invests in world-class medical talent. It educates future doctors and nurses.

The clinic's prime objective is to provide the best medical care in the world, and it can't achieve that goal by standing pat. Growth is necessary, and if the old Lourdes High School must be demolished as Mayo looks to the future, then that's what should happen.

But that doesn't mean the legacy of Lourdes High School will die. Far from it, in fact.

Rochester Catholic Schools are booming right now, and the story of Lourdes High School isn't complete. It's constantly re-written and expanded upon by its graduates, who go on to make their marks in Rochester, across the nation and around the globe.

While the new Lourdes High School building saved and incorporated some artifacts from the old building, we think that church officials, school administrators and multiple generations of graduates would agree that Lourdes isn't an assemblage of stained-glass windows, arches, stonework and statues. Nor is it a piece of land.

To borrow (and repurpose) a key line from one of the Marvel movies, Lourdes High School isn't a place. It never was.

It's a people.

We do not hear a loud chorus of Lourdes graduates calling for the building's preservation. Quite the opposite, in fact. The consensus seems to be that it's time for the city to move on — as the Catholic Church and its school system already have.

Mayo, with the help and advice of the church, could salvage some small part of the existing structure as it builds its new facility. The site could feature some tangible acknowledgment of what stood there for nearly eight decades.

But such an acknowledgment isn't crucial, because generations of students already have "preserved" Lourdes High School in their memories, their intellect, and in the lifelong relationships they forged there.