Lincoln School: To save or not to save

Chris Tucker ctucker@ptleader.com
Posted 6/20/17

The Lincoln School building on the Port Townsend High School campus has been nominated to be included on the National Register of Historic Places. School officials say it could cost millions to …

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Lincoln School: To save or not to save

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The Lincoln School building on the Port Townsend High School campus has been nominated to be included on the National Register of Historic Places. School officials say it could cost millions to rehabilitate the 1892 building and that restoring it may not be the best use of school property.

Port Townsend School Board members Nathanael O’Hara, Laura Tucker, Connie Welch and Jennifer James-Wilson voted 4-0 during a June 16 school board meeting to send a letter to the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation stating their opposition to adding the building to the register. School board member Keith White was not at the meeting.

“Although firm long-term plans for this building are unknown at this time, the District would like to maintain all options, which may include repurposing, remodeling or demolition of all or part of the building,” the board’s letter states.

“We believe designation as an historical site in the Registry may … potentially limit any future plans for the campus.”

The letter also states that the building does not exist in isolation but is part of an active student campus.

REVIEW ON JUNE 27

A group called the Washington State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation is to review the nomination at a meeting to be held at the Coulee Dam city hall at 9 a.m. on June 27.

The Port Townsend School District (PTSD) Superintendent John Polm said that the board could only object to placing the building on the register, not prevent it from being added.

“So if we were to say, ‘We’re not in favor of this because of XYZ,’ then they [the advisory council] can listen to that and take it into consideration, but they’re not bound to really honor that. Whereas if we were a private property owner, they would be bound to honor that,” Polm said.

The building was built in 1892 and served students for 86 years, from 1894 to 1980.

NOMINATED

Marsha Moratti and Cate Comerford nominated the Lincoln School for the National Register of Historic Places in May, according to a registration form.

On the form, Moratti and Comerford state, “The Lincoln School serves as a direct reminder of the various changes in the local educational system as well an example of the variety of projects that were undertaken by the numerous federal relief agencies of the Great Depression.

“The building retains most of the architectural integrity of the 1930s remodel, yet basic elements of the original Victorian Romanesque interior are evident in the high ceilings, huge windows, and doors with transoms.”

AGE OF BUILDING

The board had several concerns about adding the Lincoln School to the register, including having the building potentially be subject to an environmental impact statement and the age of the building.

Polm said the building is structurally unsound, was unsafe and could cause harm to people. The building is also an “attractive nuisance” for thrill seekers who might be tempted to explore.

“It needs to be buttoned up again, which means replacing all the plywood that’s coming off of various windows … there have been break-ins and there’s a liability to the district if people can get in there,” Polm said.

The school’s 2017 master plan for the campus has three options listed for the Lincoln School, including demolishing most of the building, but leaving the eastern quarter standing for use as art studios or a performing arts center. Another plan is to demolish the entire building, but leaving the building footprint and reusing the building materials elsewhere.

James-Wilson said registering the building could result in upgrades that could cost millions of dollars.

“It potentially increases costs that the district, in one way or another with the community, has to come up with,” she said.

There were estimates it could cost “$11 [million] to $13 million just to preserve/remodel it … to make it a functional building again,” she said.

Board members thought that tax credits, grants and local bonds could potentially be used to fund such a project.

Polm added that an elevator would have to be installed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Which is, by the way, why we moved out of it,” James-Wilson said.

“Not only was it rat infested and flooding in the bottom and not heated and had birds in the top, but you couldn’t get into it if you had any kind of mobility issues,” James-Wilson said.

The board said it needed time to assess community interest in keeping the building.

O’Hara said that support may be found there.

“Will the voters vote for another bond to renovate the campus and preserve this building or repurpose it?” O’Hara asked. “We’re trying to keep our options open … being on a registry, it seems to be limiting our options.”

O’Hara said costs were minimal to keep the building boarded up, but that could change if it deteriorated.

“Once it starts pulling resources out of the classroom to maintain this building, that’s when we can’t continue to do that. It is pretty minimal currently.”

The district has set aside $500,000 to pay for minimal upkeep of the building and to pay for potential demolition.

“What the public wants is what’s going to drive my decision because … that’s where the funding is going to come from,” O’Hara said.

He said that the board needs better estimates on what everything would cost.

“I think having a cost associated with that is where the value is. Because I think everyone is going to say, ‘Yes, we want it preserved. But will it cost me $250 a year in taxes? Will it cost me $50 a year in taxes?’ That’s what sold the Grant Street bond, was saying your taxes are going up only … 40 cents. When people realize, ‘Oh, it’s not that much,’ they were fully behind it. I don’t think we know the costs,” O’Hara said.

REHABILITATING

Tucker cautioned that it was important to let people know that any request for public funding for rehabilitating the Lincoln School, should it be registered, was separate from a regular school bond that went toward educating students “so that there isn’t this huge blowback that will affect future levies and bonds.”

If the building were registered, it could be eligible for tax credits. But since public schools are not taxed, the district would have to partner with an outside group that would be able to take advantage of the credits.

Several plans have been floated over the years to make use of the building, including a recent proposal by Peninsula Housing Authority to use it for senior housing. That plan has fallen through. There also was talk of enticing a technology company to work out of the building, but those plans have not worked out.

RELATED:

• Port Townsend High School master plan (PDF)

• National Register of Historic Places registration form for Lincoln School (PDF)

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