Take The Initiative

For those who plan to renovate an old building for seniors, the first necessity is not money. There’s no denying that you will need money–plenty of it–in the long run. But first you will very likely need to “mend-and-make-do” in order to pave the way for major grants.

The old school before renovation

An elementary school built in 1908 and abandoned in 1999 in the Wiles Hill neighborhood of Morgantown, W. Va., is not a pretty site to contemplate renovating, especially for an executive director of a small-town parks system, or its maintenance supervisor.

It’s not that administrators do not like old buildings; it’s that old buildings eat up capital budgets in the blink of an eye. They can become money pits. That’s why school boards abandon them and leave neighborhoods (mostly low- to moderate-income neighborhoods) to deal with them. And that’s why so many of these wonderful old buildings meet the fate of the wrecking ball.

The Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners (BOPARC) bought the abandoned elementary school in 2000, not for the building itself, but for the land, which was designated as the first park on the north side of town. But the old building was squarely on the property, so what was to be done with it?

Demolition was the first option. The abandoned building soon drew vandals like a moth to a flame. Black-ink handprints were left on hallway walls, the contents of filing cabinets were strewn about, and obscenities were scrawled on blackboards.

However, despite several ground-floor windows being broken, the overall physical damage was minimal. Regardless, neighbors became alarmed by the vandalism in their midst and felt threatened and vulnerable. So a cry went out: “Demolish the school; tear it down. Rid us of this nuisance.”

The Old-Man Intervention

“Over my dead body you’ll tear it down,” said an old guy in the neighborhood. He’d been a first grader at Wiles Hill Elementary in the early 1940s, a coal miner’s boy, a professor at the university, a member of the BOPARC board, and a handyman in the way that Great-Depression country boys became handymen. If something was broken, one scrounged up what was needed to fix it.

Nobody had the money to hire anyone anyway. But there were plenty of community folks who were willing to provide good advice and hands-on help to make-do.

The old guy lived less than a block from the school, and played cat-and-mouse with the vandals, neighborhood boys it turned out, who knew him and he them. He caught them one night on the roof of the school, four of them frozen in a flashlight beam. He called them down and sent them home scared to death, thinking he’d tell on them.

The man put a lock on the inside of the roof’s trap door (common on schools in 1908) through which they’d gained entry (the broken windows had since been replaced.). Then the man went to work making the wonderful old building fit the image he carried in his mind and heart.

It did not take much for him to begin receiving offers of help from neighbors, the executive director of the parks system and the parks-maintenance supervisor (who, bringing him paint one day, said, “Here, go and work your magic.”).

A bright new room for community use.

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