I appreciate the Helena School Board recognizes that Central School, whether existing or new, should continue in its original historic location and walkable for its students. I also believe it’s important to have safe schools, and support repairing and reusing old buildings to meet tomorrow's needs -- especially when repair costs are similar or less than new construction costs. Demolition alternatives exist when a property owner is willing to seriously consider them. Making the right decision soon is critical so the building doesn’t suffer demolition by neglect.
Helena’s history and its historic buildings are vital, promoted for tourism and economic development, and distinguish Helena from Anywhere USA. Moving to Helena almost 34 years ago, I was awestruck at the many wonderful architectural gems as historic public and private buildings. A former military “brat” who moved constantly, I’ve met people who have lived here their whole lives, seen their connection to each other and the community, and heard their stories of personal events often related to buildings. People still sadly and angrily talk about losing the Marlowe Theater 45 years later.
Now another significant community loss is possible. Feelings about Central School’s potential destruction run high and are polarizing – almost as safety vs. repairing an integral part of the neighborhood. It’s not either/or - historic buildings can be upgraded and expanded to meet current building/fire codes, continue for future use and a source of pride, with costs similar or less than building a new school (see MPA reports).
The application states “The intent of the district is to design a new school facility incorporating architectural features most prominent in the existing facility wherever practical.” Incorporating building design, scale and mass, materials, color, window openings and entries compatible with the surrounding historic neighborhood is more than just keeping building remnants.
The application’s cost estimates assume building rehabilitation taking 14 months vs. 12 months for full demolition and new construction. Helena’s later schools are more utilitarian with non-descript design inside and out; with only 12 months, would a new school building be like the later schools?
Submitted cost estimates show full demolition, $144,000; “selective demolition” with building rehabilitation, $130,000; the same dump fees and asbestos/lead abatement for both options. Full demolition “dump fees” seem to be underestimated, affecting new construction costs. Contingency fees of 5 percent are projected for new construction compared to 15 percent for building rehabilitation. Using the same contingency percentage for both proposals would reduce the difference for more accurate cost comparison.
Once a building is gone, it’s gone -- left only to memories that eventually fade over time. In addition to their facades, their interiors also contain architectural features that are not often included today (detailed wood moldings, wood floors, large windows for light that can be opened, etc.). Original resources used to construct Central School are not easily replaced and don’t need to take up space in the landfill; “recycle and reuse” is a better option whenever possible.
Section 3-15-1 (B-2) of Helena City Code states: “The purpose of the demolition permit review process is to protect and preserve the historical and archeological heritage of Helena, because the historic district designation is not permanent and the designation and related benefits can be lost forever if changes and alternatives are not carefully considered." The City’s 2011 Growth Policy recognizes their importance in the “community’s interwoven story.”
Benefits for historic district property owners include: tax abatements, tax credits and grants for rehabilitating qualifying buildings; historic building signs; neighborhood pride; property values, prestige and desirable resale value to name a few. More property owners could potentially be affected than just the applicant if the integrity of the larger historic district designation is compromised. Therefore, carefully considering all options and how the other historic district properties and their owners will be protected is critical.
Previous demolition applications of historic structures included proposed facade information and a site plan showing new construction to address that protection (3-15-6 (D), City Code.) This information isn’t included in the current demolition application making it inconsistent with prior demolition applications, unfair to earlier applicants who complied, and sets a new precedent. The Heritage Tourism Council recognized that the application was incomplete at their February 7th public hearing. Incomplete applications do not allow fully informed recommendations or decisions to be made.
I urge caution when considering cost estimates between demolition and rehabilitation, and self-inflicted hardships related to timelines and limited bond proposals. I respectfully ask the City Commission to DENY the School District’s current demolition request for Central School.
Kathy Macefield, Helena
Retired City-County Historic Preservation Officer and City Planner