The 1892 Lincoln School building on Port Townsend High School's campus truly is one of Washington's most endangered historic properties.
The hilltop building recently made its first-ever appearance on the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation's Most Endangered Historic Properties List as one of this year's six most endangered properties around the state.
Even more recently, Port Townsend School District officials applied for a city permit to demolish the three-story, brick structure, which has been sitting vacant since 2012, when the district moved its administrative offices to the nearby Gael Stuart Building.
“We've spent the last three years exploring many possibilities,” superintendent David Engle said of building, which is scarred by broken and boarded-up windows; faces substantial mechanical, electrical and plumbing issues; and requires seismic retrofitting for reoccupation.
“We need to get this project under way. The building is starting to generate real costs just to mothball it and keep it standing, and that money comes out of our general fund, which means it's taking money away from students and classrooms.”
Now – three years after voters approved the district's capital levy setting aside $500,000 for this demolition – district officials are working to clear hurdles around the building's historic eligibility in order to secure that city permit.
“The building is not within a historic district, but it is eligible for historic designation, so it has to meet certain higher criteria in our code in order to be approved for a demo permit,” said Lance Bailey, the city's planning director.
One hurdle would be for the district to show the building is not structurally sound, Bailey said. Yet, “The structure appears to be generally sound,” according to a district-commissioned November 2012 seismic evaluation report by I.L. Gross Structural Engineers of Mountlake Terrace, Washington.
At the same time, that report estimates a cost of $6.5 million in seismic upgrades to make the building safe for any level of use beyond storage.
“That report was strictly looking at seismic upgrades, but not at a lot of other things necessary for other, more intense uses,” Bailey said, adding that the 2012 report assumed the lowest-impact uses, such as office space, rather than condominiums or a restaurant, which would result in a greater density in occupancy.
Another hurdle would be showing that the cost of repurposing the building for a use suitable to its location on a high school campus is too great for the district to bear.
“If you were trying to demonstrate the real economic cost of reusing that building, I'm not sure that 2012 report gets you there,” Bailey said. “I think that number would be a lot higher.”
Bailey said he is convinced the district has made a good-faith effort over the past three years to repurpose the building, saying, “This wasn't option A for them.”
For three months during the summer of 2014, the district ran a request for proposals, which garnered no financially viable responses.
“We did our due diligence, so we're not going to waste any more time on that,” said Brad Taylor, the district's facilities and food service director, who put out the request.
District officials have said the building's location on a public school campus paired with the cost of bringing it up to code has been particularly prohibitive.
“I have been approached by many people with great ideas and no money,” said Engle. “As these ideas come and go, I have the problem of a derelict old building requiring attention and maintenance while people dream. We either need a viable proposal in front of us or we need to get to demolition, because I am not going to be the superintendent who keeps pouring money into this.”
Taylor, who started with the district at the same time Engle did, in 2012, said he's seen roughly $6,000 of general fund revenue spent on monitoring entryways and resecuring the building after break-ins.
“Kids have figured out how to get into the building,” Engle said. “They are getting on the roof. Every time we secure it, they find another way in. For us to really secure it, we would have to spend some real money it.”
Costs aside, archivist Marsha Moratti of the Jefferson County Historical Society said she's skeptical of the district's will to preserve the building. She said that regardless of its efforts otherwise, the district has quietly been moving toward demolition since earmarking capital levy funds for that purpose in 2012.
“They are going through the motions and they're doing it quietly,” said Moratti, who nominated the building for the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation's 2015 list. “It needs more attention. You need to cast your net wider.”
That's one reason she nominated the building – to give it more exposure in hopes of garnering greater interest in saving it.
“The building is in pretty darn good shape,” she said. “I was involved in the city hall restoration, and this building is in better shape than the historic city hall building was. Of course, it was a different project, but there was the will to do something about it and it was visible, whereas this project is not.”
Moratti – one of seven people on the city's Historic Preservation Committee, which must sign off on the district's permit application – is not the only local resident pushing for its preservation.
Bill Mounts, a self-described semiretired attorney and serial entrepreneur whose four children have attended Port Townsend schools, said he's “trying to fan the flames” in an effort to galvanize community interest in repurposing the building.
“The Lincoln building is an asset to the community and should be rehabilitated, not demolished,” said Mounts, who recently toured the building with Taylor. “Nobody was interested in taking this on in a private venture, so I think it should be a public-private venture. I am trying to garner enough interest to create a public-private partnership to preserve the Lincoln School building and make it a hub of innovation, economic development and STEM education – all of that.”
Mounts said he would like to see the district's $500,000 set aside for demolition repurposed for such a partnership. Taylor said such a repurposing would require school board approval. Engle said Mounts' vision exists on a longer timeline than he is currently willing to entertain.
“I can't just repurpose that half-million dollars,” Engle said. “That money was for demolition. I can't spend that taxpayer money on a speculative venture.”
Chris Moore, executive director of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, said his organization has published a list of most endangered properties since 1992.
“I would love to say every building that has made the list has ultimately been saved,” he said. “Unfortunately, that's not true, but it does have the impact of raising awareness and galvanizing support for preservation.”
He also acknowledged the common need to balance economic factors.
“Oftentimes, everyone involved is on the same page,” he said. “They want to see the resource preserved, though it often comes down to a matter of economics. With the Lincoln School, it's clear everyone wants to see this building preserved. But how do you make that work economically? We know districts across the state have tight budgets and have to prioritize. Hopefully, this will highlight the opportunity that exists for would-be users of the property.”
Engle said the goal is to salvage any reusable materials, such as wood, stone, brick and cabinetry, then pay an architect to find a way to repurpose the campus site as a plaza that memorializes the Lincoln School building.
“I don't want to just blast the building, but rather put something in its place that people could visit to remember that building,” he said. “We could erect an edifice. I'd like to do something there using salvaged materials to commemorate that historic building.”
For now, Taylor is searching for an historic preservation consultant to compile historical information about and tell the story of the Lincoln School building.