By Stefanie Jackson – The historic Accomac Primary School should not be demolished but renovated and preserved for future generations – even if it’s more expensive than a new building, according to citizens who spoke during the public comment period of the Accomack school board meeting Tuesday.
Prior to the meeting, some Accomack citizens had written letters to the editor in the Eastern Shore Post claiming that the cost of renovations or new construction were roughly the same – around $5 million.
However, a presentation made by Donald Booth, of the DJG Inc. engineering, architectural, and planning firm of Williamsburg, stated that renovating Accomac Primary School and converting it into a school board office building could cost $7.2 million.
“All these good people in this room are here tonight because they believe new construction and renovation are the same price. They are absolutely not the same price,” said school board member Paul Bull.
But that did not deter citizens from speaking in support of saving the school during the public comment period following the presentation.
Sarah Nock, of Accomac, said her father, L. Floyd Nock, wrote a history book about the town of Accomac, and she shared his philosophy of architectural history: “Buildings are not beautiful because of being old; they get the opportunity to be old because they’re beautiful in the first place.”
The school opened in 1932 as Accomac High School and served students for about 70 years. The building was last occupied about 20 years ago and is now used as storage by the Accomack schools maintenance team.
The Accomack school board office currently is on the second floor of the Accomack County administration building, down the street from the former primary school.
This is not the first time Accomac Primary School has been considered for use as a school administration building. A study was done about six or seven years ago to determine if the building was suitable, Bull said.
The existing building is about 19,000 square feet and is on approximately 7.25 acres. That’s more than enough to accommodate the 15,800 square feet required by school administrators for office space.
Booth said the school could be renovated, but a lot of work must be done and the project could present many unforeseen issues, since only a visual assessment was done and the school’s condition beneath the surface is unknown.
The base estimates to renovate or rebuild the school each were around $5 million but did not include the unknowns, Booth noted.
He described some of the damage that was observed during the assessment: deteriorating roof seams, rusty window frames and lintels, cracked and broken window glass, deteriorated wood doors and frames, and cracking and spalling (peeling or flaking) concrete stairs.
The exterior brick walls also present multiple problems. The brick veneer has shifted as much as one inch in some places, and the walls have developed large “stair-step” shaped cracks, with some of the bricks separating.
The interior is badly damaged, with partially collapsed plaster ceilings, rusty bar joists supporting the concrete floor, and an auditorium ceiling that’s stained and has bubbling, peeling paint due to humidity or other sources of moisture. Mold was observed on hallway ceilings and asbestos may be present in the flooring.
The building’s infrastructure is outdated and damaged, such as the abandoned electrical system and the steam boiler and tank.
Further complicating the project would be determining where the ductwork and other parts of the new HVAC system would go, since the school did not have air conditioning when it was built decades ago, Booth said.
The building would be stripped down to little more than an “old skeleton” and filled with 21st century infrastructure, he said.
Booth concluded that not much of the building could be salvaged but confirmed that parts of the exterior facade could be saved and reused.
Accomac Primary School, with its colonial-style, white columned and gabled portico against a backdrop of red brick, is an instantly recognizable piece of history to many people on the Eastern Shore.
Accomac Mayor Pat Smith pointed out that the school is in a historic district and she does not want the building to be destroyed. She urged the Accomack school board and county supervisors to work together as a team to preserve the historic building.
Accomac Town Council member Tommy Hines also spoke in support of saving the school, and Vice Mayor Christopher Newman added that the sycamore trees also should be preserved like the 400-year-old sycamore on Back Street, which is a “symbol of Drummondtown,” the town’s name before it was changed to Accomac in 1893.
Two speakers related stories of other historic buildings on the Shore that were saved in spite of doubts or objections.
Nock said that in the 1970s, Market Street Methodist Church in Onancock was restored and largely survived a tornado about three years later despite a “devastating engineering report describing how it was about to fall down.”
Linda Gordon, formerly of Greenbackville, described a “peaceful riot” by citizens of Snow Hill, Md., who didn’t want the old Snow Hill High School demolished; now it’s an apartment building with its historic architectural features intact and the new high school next-door.
Bull said it would be “outstanding” to renovate Accomac Primary School, but both he and Vice Chair Gary Reese voiced concern about the cost and asking the board of supervisors for additional funding.
Grayson Chesser, of Saxis, asked the school board to consider what would have happened if Accomack had torn down its old debtor’s prison and courthouse and said, “You can’t buy history.”