CENTRAL SCHOOL, HELENA
On Feb. 27, 2016 the Helena City Commission approved a demolition permit request for Central School. If the upcoming June 2017 school bond passes, the School District will demolish the school and replace it with a new building. Although all previous architecture and engineering studies pointed to a vibrant and safe renovated Central, school trustees sited earthquake safety concerns that successfully sparked fear of historic buildings. Although we applaud the City's decision to add conditions to the demolition permit that require the new building to be compatible with the neighborhood architecture, the precedent set by the City Commission to approve demolition of a National Register-listed building is likely to have far-reaching impacts to Helena's historic downtown fabric in the years to come.
Helena's first permanent graded school building was erected on the current site in 1876. A separate high school was built in 1890 just north of the 1876 school.
The Italian Renaissance Revival 7th Avenue Gymnasium was designed by the accomplished firm of Link & Haire in 1907. Link and Haire designed many prominent buildings across the Northwest, including the early twentieth-century additions to the State Capitol, the Montana Life Insurance building in Helena, the Northern Hotel in Billings and many more.
Built in 1915 and expanded in 1921, Central’s Collegiate Gothic façade was designed by Helena architect George Carsley, one of the city’s most talented 20th century architects. A protégé of Cass Gilbert, he worked with Gilbert on the Montana Club and Placer Hotel, and designed many beautiful Helena buildings. Since opening in 1915, Central School has crowned Helena’s downtown skyline, welcoming neighborhood children every fall for almost 100 years.
Both Central and the 7th Ave Gym weathered the 1935 earthquake. Central School suffered loss of exterior fabric but was not damaged structurally. In 1936, engineers R.C. Hugenin and Norman Dekay made seismic retrofits to make Central School more resilient in an earthquake. Buildings built prior to the 1970s when seismic codes were adopted have been seismically retrofitted throughout Montana and the nation. This is very common, and masonry schools and other buildings now function as beautiful space.
Elsewhere in Montana, progressive school districts such as Billings and Missoula have listened to the public and right now are preserving and expanding heritage schools. They have responded to the clear message that preserving history, recycling, and connecting past and future generations is good for communities and a cherished legacy for our children.
All of the architecture and engineering reports that have looked at Central School and the 7th Avenue gym say it can safely be refurbished. None have said it was failing or that it should be demolished. Rather, they all agreed the school needed to be seismically reinforced to meet current codes, and that doing so was entirely feasible.
Like the many school districts across the nation that have proudly renovated their schools, Helena’s Central School, with its high ceilings, large sunny windows and spacious rectangular form, could readily be remodeled and with an addition, meet the school district’s targets for modern learning.
Recently, the Billings School District showed what can be done with historic schools. On January 20 they received the Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation for the vision and beauty of their restoration effort of the McKinley and Broadwater schools. And in accepting, Lew Anderson, Billings SD2 bond manager, said not only did the district save money by preserving their schools rather than replacing them, these two schools are now the highest performing for energy efficiency of all the elementary and middle schools in the District.
Also, on January 10, MPA and special guests presented, Celebrating Central: Its History and Future at the Montana Historical Society. Montana Historical Society Interpretive Historian Ellen Baumler spoke on the history and significance of Central School; CTA Group Preservation Architect Lesley Gilmore shared case studies of how other historic schools in seismic zones across the West have been rejuvenated to serve as safe, high-functioning schools; and MPA architect, Dustin Kalanick offered value analysis, cost information and floor plans for a 21st Century renovated Central School. You can watch the whole presentation on YouTube or peruse Gilmore and Kalanick's slideshows separately.
Numerous professional architecture and engineering studies commissioned by the district and funded by taxpayers recommend that Central School and the 7th Avenue gym can be made safe and useful for 50 years or more.
Central School and the 7th Ave. gym are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Listing does not place any restrictions on how the owner maintains or remodels the building. The City of Helena does require building permits for renovation, and a demolition permit for complete removal of a building.
Buildings in Helena are demolished every month, but no person or group has ever applied to demolish two buildings that are listed in the National Register. The Bishop Gilmore High School (demolished in 2008) was not listed in the National Register. The beautiful Neoclassical school was replaced by a parking lot.
The Helena School District Board of Trustees has decided twice to renovate Central. Trustees listened numerous times to public comment in favor of renovating Central and voted in favor of renovation in 2013 (after closure) and again in 2015 when the board included plans to renovate Central School as part of the bond election. No formal studies of why the bond failed have been undertaken.
Seismic codes were not established until the mid-1970s. School buildings built prior to the 1970s have been seismically retrofitted throughout this state and the nation, and now function as beautiful educational spaces. All reports indicate Central School and 7th Avenue gym can be seismically reinforced and renovated to meet all current educational and safety codes.
Demolition of historic buildings is a divisive issue that may delay bringing children back to Central and threaten the ability for the school board to pass a bond.
There are many options for renovating and expanding Central School that respect the financial, educational, civic, and cultural values of the district and the community.