A last-minute proposal by the town of Bel Air, pleas from preservationists and alumni, and a request from a state official could not save a 19th-century school from demolition.
The Harford County Board of Education voted unanimously last week to raze the two-story brick building, known to many residents as the Bel Air Academy and Graded School.
"This is a difficult, wrenching decision because this is an historic building," said Mark M. Wolkow, school board president. "Our responsibility is to our students."
Board members insisted they could not make the building available to the town because the 2 acres it occupies will be needed for future expansion at nearby Bel Air Elementary School. Razing the vacant building will make way for an expanded playground, parking lot and bus loop for the elementary school, which is one of the smallest in the county.
"This building has brought life to Bel Air for more than 100 years," said Jim Chrismer of Bel Air. "Destroying it is akin to taking a chainsaw to the forest. Parking lots and treeless spaces are all too common."
While she commended the community for caring for the property, Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas said the board's responsibility is to the students.
"The board must consider the building and the property as one entity," Haas said. "It is clear that this property will be needed for future educational purposes."
The board cannot legally declare surplus any property that it might need sometime in the future, she said. It has no use for the aging building, which was most recently administration offices, she said.
"It is the only land we have other than crossing the street," said Thomas L. Fidler, board vice president.
Bel Air Commissioner David E. Carey said the town could address the board's space needs without demolishing the building, which town engineers have said is structurally sound.
"You can improve the site while the structure is there," Carey said. "We are not at the point where we should take it down because you might need the space in the future."
The town offered to lease the building and restore it, possibly into an arts center. The board has no immediate need for the property, he said.
"They will raze this building and let the land sit vacant for 10 years," Carey said. "This is a unique opportunity to preserve our heritage and it is being thwarted by another public agency."
Board members suggested moving the building to another location, a costly and impractical option since Bel Air has no lot available, town officials said.
"There are heavy costs associated with moving such a big building," said Maryanna Skowronski, administrator of the Historical Society of Harford County. "There is so much of old Bel Air coming down that this building is important to retain the flavor of the neighborhood."
Del. Susan K. McComas argued that the school is integral to the community.
"We have to look at it as an opportunity to preserve some heritage in Harford County, not as a hindrance," she said.
Christine Tolbert, who can trace her ancestry in the county to the 18th-century, has recently completed the restoration of a one-room school in Darlington, the first school for Harford's African-American students.
"We travel all over the world to see things others have preserved," Tolbert said. "But, when it comes to preserving what our own ancestors have built, we hedge."