A tale of two schools

As preservationists, we constantly fight the misconceptions and notions that people have about continuing to use existing buildings, or rehabbing buildings that have been vacant. I came across one such example a few weeks back in the Record Herald, Washington Court House’s daily newspaper.

The headline read “Jeffersonville school to be demolished soon” and the article briefly recounted the impending demise of a small-town school building. Quoted in the article, the county’s chief building official provided arguments about why the demolition, for a 1924 school building that had been vacant since 2008, was needed.

Demolition argument #1: the cost of retrofitting

“Usually those old buildings with the way they were built…we’re not able to retro-fit them with new mechanical things. The cost is just overwhelming.”

Demolition argument #2: since the building has been vacant for a period of time, demolition has inevitably become the only choice

“Sooner or later (old buildings) do become a hazard…It can’t go anywhere but down the longer it sits.”

What’s ironic is the last sentence of the article, discussing the site’s future once the school has come down:
Ideas being discussed for the future of that site include an apartment building and/or possibly a small park.

Now, let’s contrast the demise of the Jeffersonville School with the rebirth of the Hawthorne School in Dayton, a historic school building currently in use as, surprise, apartments!

Built in 1886 in McPherson Town, a picturesque Dayton neighborhood, the school served as an educational hub until 1974 when the district abandoned the building. The building served other purposes but was completely vacated in 1987, its age beginning to show. Although developers showed interest in the building, no viable proposal came forward until 1998 when the building was finally rehabilitated into residential apartments. In other words, the building sat vacant and in disrepair for 11 years before it was successfully redeveloped.

The redevelopment was a true public-private partnership as both the City of Dayton and the private developer brought their respective tools to the table: private equity, tax credit incentives, a city loan, HOME funds, and CDBG funds. The result still stands today: a historic apartment building that adds to the fabric of a historic neighborhood.

When comparing these two paths, what really stands out is the community mindset when making a decision about a vacant building. Does the community view the building as an asset to invest in, or does the community view the building as a liability. If these two schools switched communities, do you think the results would have been different: the Hawthorne building preserved in Jeffersonville, and the Jeffersonville school demolished in Dayton, because of the qualities of each building? Or is it the community mindset (and will to preserve) that ultimately signs a building’s death warrant, or grants its rebirth?

As our annual round of Top Preservation Opportunities comes up again this year, we hope to once again reach out to the “Jeffersonvilles” of Ohio and influence (and educate) the mindset of the historic, but vacant, building as a liability, to become a mindset of the building as asset. We’ll let you know what happens.

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2 Responses to “A tale of two schools”
  1. Renee says:

    I love the fact that the historic school was seen as an asset. We lost our school in my town and now they are talking about the need for housing. They had such a golden opportunity to turn the old school into housing. Instead, it’s now in a landfill and they will probably build something that doesn’t fit well into the space that’s there. How can we get people to think more creatively about older buildings … especially schools?

    • frank says:

      Renee, that’s a great question, and that’s one of the main things we try to do as an organization: get into communities and share examples of how old buildings can be repurposed for new use, and that demolition is almost never the best solution when you fully understand what can be done.

      In my post, I neglected to mention something even more amazing. The folks in Dayton rehabilitated the school without the benefit of the state’s 25% rehab tax credit. It was introduced in 2007, many years after the Hawthorne School was reopened as apartments. The folks in Jeffersonville could have potentially taken advantage of this additional incentive to make rehabilitation even more feasible.