Reviving the Historic 1905 Quincy Schoolhouse at 50 Church Street, a worn and longtime treasure, is no small undertaking. You might say it’s truly a labor of love.
But as with all love affairs, things are not always easy and seldom are they completely perfect.
Four years and two choices
The project has become a large and thoughtful job planned over four years of public meetings and collaborative efforts with community members and the Plumas Unified School District — a job without any easy choices or answers. Expensive, too.
“We had two choices last October,” said PUSD Trustee Dwight Pierson, speaking at the May 9 school board meeting held in Chester. “Either we could have just abandoned it and it would have cost us half a million dollars to tear it down, or more, and we’d have ended up with a vacant lot. Or we could reinvest in it and make it a usable, useful, attractive building that is now going to serve our staff and the community at large.”
Pierson’s comments reflected the actions PUSD’s Governing Board of Trustees took when they went forward dedicated to saving the building, which had been vacated in 2014 originally due to waste plumbing and flooding issues.
During the multi-year process of evaluating options to save the schoolhouse, those same critical repairs, and others to come, held local groups and other organizations away from committing to take possession of the building when opportunities were offered. Nobody could afford the bill or the potential risks.
Making plans, starting from the top
So PUSD formed a plan, found the Fund 35 dollars in their general fund from prior projects for which they had been reimbursed, and started with a new roof, reminiscent of turn-of-the-century styles, that was completed this past winter at a cost of just under $232,500.
March and April arrived and with them, a new phase of remediation work began and determined what else might be waiting for critical attention.
It was time to assess and address the extent of both interior and exterior damage to the structure.
More water infiltration, moisture damage and “compromised” siding and windows were found, so off they came. The potential presence of other hazards also had to be tested for and evaluated.
Finding and dealing with hazards
PUSD Project Manager Kevin Nolan, who is overseeing the Church Street property work and other projects for the district, said lead, mold and asbestos were found at the old schoolhouse, then abated and cleared for re-construction work.
“We treated this building as we would any (other) for safety and ability to work freely on the building: testing, reporting, abatement, clearance, etc.” Nolan said. “Therefore, to mitigate the hazardous materials found, and to guard against future issues, we had to strip the inside finishes and remove the siding and windows. While there are still challenges inherent with an old structure, we can know we started-out correctly and safely.”
The State of California’s Division of the State Architect, or DSA, oversees school property projects and allows this kind of work to be handled at the local level, according to DSA staff in Sacramento.
“In this case, the building is exempt from DSA Structural and Fire and Life Safety review and approval,” said DSA’s Jennifer Iida. “The local city or county health department has jurisdiction over health issues at school sites and there are no requirements adopted by DSA to save parts of the structure.”
Jerry Sipe, Plumas County’s Environmental Health Department Director, confirmed the process.
“They’ve satisfied all the lead, asbestos and mold testing requirements according to the standards, the air sampling and all of that stuff,” Sipe said. “This is all self-implementing, based on the age of the building and general practices for a building of that age.”
Big changes stirred concerns
Still, some people in the community reacted with dismayed surprise when siding, windows and walls came off the historic structure at the end of April, a bit like unexpectedly lifting the splendid lady’s petticoats.
“Yes, there has been the shock of seeing the building in this state,” Pierson commented. “There is literally nothing hidden now. The biggest concern of some people is: What’s it going to look like when it’s done? Will it look like the grand old lady that it was before?”
A local woman wheeling her grandson’s stroller by the back of the schoolhouse on Jackson Street last week made these observations.
“My family has been coming to Quincy since the 1930s,” said Diana Lamb, reaching to keep the warming spring sunlight off of 2-year-old Sawyer. “My mother is 85, Ruth Gibson of Meadow Valley, and she went to school here. It’s an historic building and I’d love to see it repurposed. It’s absolutely beautiful and I understand they can’t leave it the way it is.”
Lamb added that she wants PUSD to preserve as much history as they can for the building, “ but do what’s practical. Yes, absolutely do what they need to do to fix it. I think it’s going great.”
‘Not what we were expecting’
Others have stronger concerns about the historic preservation aspects.
Historian Scott Lawson, executive director of the Plumas County Museum in Quincy, is one.
“I’ve worked on old buildings and I feel like they barreled into it,” Lawson said. “Short of a fire, we’ve never had to completely get rid of pieces wholesale. This is not what we were expecting. I don’t want to have a conflict with the school district, but I’m not happy.”
The historian said the 50 Church Street School is designated as Historic Building 71 in the Plumas County general plan, so preserving the character of the original structure is important.
“I’m not concerned about the interior,” Lawson noted. “I was most concerned about the exterior. It’s not supposed to look brand new. Many folks weren’t expecting this level of change. They thought it would be more about fixing a few places here and there, painting it, etc. We thought it was going to be a restoration where you try to keep as much of the original material as you can and replace with as close to the original as possible. Now it’s a rebuild.”
Project Manager Nolan responded to the concerns.
“According to our environmental consultant, the siding had more than reached its life-span and was a major contributor of water infiltration leading to mold and dry rot,” Nolan said. “The windows were also compromised, leaking, and contained high-levels of asbestos and mold within the frames, mullions and glazing compounds. We have, and are, doing everything we can to maintain the historical features and are working toward that goal.”
Lawson acknowledged that he has had “good conversations” with both PUSD Superintendent Terry Oestreich and Trustee Pierson about the status of the schoolhouse remediation.
“They were very helpful,” he said. “They told me a citizens group is working with our local Sierra Pacific Industries sawmill to mill some replacements for the exterior siding, but that was all old clear pine and I would be really surprised to see them come up with anything close to what it had. We’ll see.”
Near and dear to hearts of many
Oestreich noted the sensitive nature of the schoolhouse mitigation work and that the project is near and dear to the hearts of many in Plumas County, including the school district and trustees.
Following the school board meeting last week, she said she wants to speak with Lawson about his information on the historic status of the schoolhouse, to receive details and/or documentation that could provide helpful guidelines, etc.
“Our governing board has engaged in this discussion over the past four years during our District Advisory Council meetings,” she explained. “We have two Friends of 50 Committee members and the large group committee has met twice. The smaller group, who are also members of the larger group (dedicated to saving the historic schoolhouse) have met monthly over the past seven months.”
Oestreich added that the Friends of 50 Committee has discussed a range of topics affecting the restoration project, including partnerships, green options, grant writing, salvaged items, abatement, demolition, use of local contractors, lease agreements and funding options.
This district also clarified, in a May 2 statement, “Moving forward, we will collaborate with the District Project Manager, the Board, the Architect, and Friends of 50 to obtain ideas and needs for interior and exterior design of the building — we look forward to working with all stakeholders. We expect the project design process to be completed by June 30, 2018 and advertised for bid shortly thereafter. Construction could begin as early as July 16, 2018 and be complete by March 15, 2019. Please keep in mind these are tentative dates.”
Next steps, funding and more plans
At the school board meeting, PUSD staff received a go-ahead to seek financing options for $3.5 million needed to complete the Quincy Schoolhouse work and they will bring the item back for board discussion and action at a future meeting.
All of the trustees — Joleen Cline, Dave Keller, Pierson, Clerk of the Board Traci Holt and Leslie Edlund, Board President — expressed the need to ensure community support for the next steps of the process and the importance of ongoing work with the Friends of 50 Committee.
“I understand our project manager is being very conservative,” Cline said. “We know our community. We are not looking at a skeleton of a building when we are done.”
Trustee Pierson summed up the process to date.
“People tell me they are ecstatic that something is happening now with the building,” he said. “I’ve been telling the public, no matter who moved into this, we had to make the building serviceable. It had to have the abatement. Many people are being supportive.”
Pierson added, “As we move forward, and I know the Friends of 50 will be meeting, we need to continue to emphasize using as many local contractors as possible in the renovation and restoration of that building.”
Edlund estimated the restored schoolhouse will serve as a new headquarters for PUSD staff and the building would also have meeting space facilities available for community needs, even for use after hours and for events.
“This is doable,” Pierson concluded. “Hopefully, it will be as much of a community center as it will be a district office. Just driving around, you can see that the county’s looking good, businesses are expanding, buildings are being painted and improved. I think good things are happening in Plumas County and I hope this fits in. Working together with our communities (countywide) is going to make us more attractive to families and hopefully bring more jobs, more commerce.”