Helena Public Schools will move forward with demolishing Central School starting with asbestos abatement and removal of salvageable pieces of the historic building.
Central School is slated to be demolished and rebuilt as part of a $63 million bond passed in May, but work was delayed by a lawsuit. After a judge dismissed the case to keep the district from tearing down the school last month, Superintendent Jack Copps said the district will put out bids for demolition on Aug. 1.
Alan and Nancy Nicholson, who filed the lawsuit to invalidate the district’s demolition permit, are still within a 60-day window to appeal the decision.
The Nicholsons did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether they would appeal the decision. Copps said the school district decided not to seek attorney fees from the Nicholsons.
“That was the last issue before the court,” Copps said. “During that period of time, (60 days) we have authority to demolish that building.”
If the Nicholsons appeal the ruling, a judge would have to grant a stay, which would halt the demolition process.
Copps said the district put up signs on the Central site to let people know the demolition process has started. Copps said a security guard will be on the premises 24 hours a day to make sure the site is secure.
Trespassers have entered the school and vandalized it several times since it was vacated, but Copps said the building is already unsafe and he doesn’t want kids entering it as demolition starts.
Central was closed in 2013 after engineers determined the building was unsafe and could suffer extensive damage during an earthquake. After a 5.8 magnitude quake centered near Lincoln was felt in Helena on July 6, the district checked each school except the interior of Central for damage.
“I don’t have any interest in going back inside that building,” Copps said. “Just by going through the building it becomes very apparent that that building is very fragile. There are brick walls that are bulging. There are floors that are sagging significantly and other issues.”
Copps said workers will have to enter the building for asbestos abatement, and the district didn’t thoroughly evaluate the structure of the school after the earthquake to limit who was at risk.
“With all of that said, it’s very difficult to walk into Central,” he said. “Even though the walls are freestanding brick and nothing fell down, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t additional infrastructure damage at Central because that’s the most fragile structure we have in our mix.”
After the school board voted to rebuild instead of renovate Central, community members expressed concern that historic items in Central would be lost. A preservation committee was formed to determine what could be salvaged.
Pam Attardo, the historic preservation officer for Lewis and Clark County, sits on the committee and said the terracotta archway in front of the building was originally on the list of items submitted to the district for preservation. The list the district sent back did not include the arch due to cost concerns.
Any company submitting a bid for demolition will also be required to give the district an estimate of how much it would cost to preserve the archway. The archway is often mistaken for granite, which was used to build the rear of the school, Attardo said.
“When they got to the front of the building they switched from using granite to using a terracotta that looks like granite,” she said. “It’s cheaper, but the problem is it just tends to shatter.”
Attardo said she’d seen examples of terracotta materials being saved, but there’s concern it could crumble. Parts of the building made out of terracotta were destroyed in the 1935 earthquake, Attardo said.
The school district wants to see a cost estimate before agreeing to preserve the archway. If it is salvageable, Attardo said it would likely be incorporated into the interior design of the new school.
Assistant Superintendent Greg Upham said the list the district sent back to the committee on July 6 is final unless the archway is affordable to keep. The district listed 16 items to be saved including a bell, classroom doors, water fountains and some pieces of granite. The committee asked the district to preserve the school's maple flooring, trim and national register sign, but those pieces didn’t make the list.
Some of the items listed will be saved, but not put in the new school. Attardo said it’s undecided whether items will go to the Montana Historical Society or the Lewis and Clark County Historical Society.
“They will go to one of those entities, or we were talking about having some sort of educational display within the school itself to include the items that were from the old school,” she said.