This Rhode Island Filmmaker Returned to His Abandoned Middle School
Ten years later, Jason Allard reports his old school is still perfectly preserved and explores exciting developments in a new video series.
When was the last time you walked the halls of your middle school?
For Jason Allard, it was last fall while filming the latest in his “Abandoned from Above” video series. And in many ways, everything was just as he’d left it.
Allard is a documentary filmmaker living in Providence who records Rhode Island’s abandoned places. His online series “Abandoned from Above” has more than 100,000 views on YouTube and was featured in the June 2022 issue of Rhode Island Monthly. Among the places explored in his series are the Apex building, the ruins of an allegedly haunted factory in Foster and Narragansett’s Windswept Estate.
But one location has always had special meaning for Allard, who grew up in the Blackstone Valley: the former Woonsocket Middle School.
“It was the subject of my first full-length documentary in 2013, and in the years since then it’s always been on my mind. Since it was so special to me, I always had high hopes for it,” he says.
The Woonsocket Middle School was built in 1915 to house a growing student population. Originally constructed as a high school, it was later expanded and converted for use as a middle school. The school closed in 2009 when the city built two new middle schools a short distance away.
Since then, the building has languished as various redevelopment plans came and went. Allard, who attended the school for three years in the early 2000s, directed his first full-length feature documentary about it in 2013. The documentary aired on Rhode Island PBS and helped kickstart his filmmaking career.
Ten years later, he decided to revisit the property to see what had changed. Despite the eeriness of the empty campus, Allard says the school has been remarkably preserved owing to the city’s efforts to maintain the security system and prevent arson and vandalism. Comments he’d written on the blackboard while filming in the building ten years ago were still there.
“It was still completely stuck in time reflecting the last day that the school was in operation, which was Dec. 17, 2009,” he says.
The twenty-eight-minute video, which already has more than 10,000 views one week after it was posted, shows Allard along with friends and fellow filmmakers David Lawlor, Chris Hebert and Axel DelCid traveling from room to room within the massive campus. The building is the largest abandoned school in New England and covers 212,000 square feet, an area that can easily become treacherous if someone loses their bearing. Allard says they spent an entire day exploring the structure, including the former boiler room and hidden tunnels connecting parts of the building.
Allard also delves into the history of the building, including its abrupt closure in 2009. On the final day of school, a reported mercury spill prompted school officials to close the building a day early.
How did this former student gain access to such a protected building? Along with the ten-year anniversary, another recent development prompted Allard to return to his old school. Last fall, a Boston-based real estate company purchased the structure for $1 million with plans to turn it into 140 apartments and a gym. Allard secured permission from the new owners to enter the building, and even interviewed one of the managing partners about their plans in a former classroom.
“Because it’s on the Historic Register, there’s certain architectural features that they have to keep as part of the redevelopment. They’re mindful of that; they don’t want to just completely gut the thing and take away everything that made it so special over the years,” he says.
It’s the first time, as far as he’s aware, that one of the Rhode Island properties featured in his series has been the subject of serious redevelopment plans. He may have even played a small role in pushing the interest along: While conducting research for the latest video, he learned that his original 2013 documentary was cited in the nomination to place the building on the National Register of Historic Places, approved in 2017. Buildings on the National Register are typically eligible for tax credits that make them more appealing to potential developers.
“To know that something that we did had a part, however small, in getting it nominated for the National Register, I was pretty excited about that,” he says. “I’m always rooting for these places to be preserved or redeveloped in some way so that their legacy lives on, even if it’s serving a different purpose.”
So what’s next for the historian-filmmaker? Allard says there are a few other properties around northern Rhode Island that he’s interested in checking out before they’re redeveloped, or else left to the whims of nature.
“Most of the places I visit, they’re just stuck in development limbo, or they get destroyed by vandals and arsonists, or they’re just left out to the elements,” he says. “The Woonsocket Middle School, being the biggest school, with so much potential, it’s a huge deal for this to be happening.”
To view Allard’s latest video, visit his YouTube channel or follow him on Instagram at @uncomsense.
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