A landmark on thin ice

The Baltimore Sun

In 1882, the first brick public school building was constructed on Gordon Street in Harford County. Called the Bel Air Academy and Graded School, the original two-story building contained four classrooms and was heated with stoves.

Two wings were added to the building, one in 1897, and the second one in 1910. Students in grades four through 12 attended the school. Later, it was used as the central offices for the Board of Education.

"The historical value of the building is unquestionable," said Chris Schlehr, the Bel Air town administrator. "And there is a lot of sentimental value attached to the building."

But when the school offices moved to a new building in 2006, the land where the Gordon Street building stands was earmarked for use as a parking lot and playground for the Bel Air Elementary School. As a result, local preservationists and government officials are trying to find someone to occupy and restore the building to save it from what seems to be imminent demolition.

"No one questions that the Gordon Street building is important to the county's education history," said Thomas J. Fidler, school board president. "But there is a point where historic preservation does not make sense. And I think that we are at that point here."

More than a year ago, about $423,000 was allotted for the demolition of the building and site work, but the school board has not acted on it, Fidler said.

"We should have spent the money and built the playground and the parking lot," Fidler said. "But it isn't a pressing matter, and it's not a priority to do it right now. The long-term desire of the Board of Education has always been to collaborate with the county, and the town of Bel Air, on preserving the building. We will not yield the land, but the building is up for grabs."

The biggest obstacle they face is raising the money -- estimated between $500,000 and $1 million -- to restore and renovate the building, Schlehr said.

Although the exterior is solid, the interior needs work. There are lead paint and asbestos issues that need to be addressed, and the brick and windows need repairs, Schlehr said.

The interior of the building is an eyesore, and it could never be moved, Fidler said.

"The bones of the building are in decent shape," said Fidler, senior vice president and principal of MacKenzie Commercial Real Estate Services LLC, and MacKenzie Retail LLC. "If we restore this property, it will cost more than anything ever done in the county, with public school dollars, on a per-foot basis."

A new building would cost $120 to $140 per square foot, and salvaging the building the way people think it should be done would cost a lot more than that, he said.

Although the school board has faced heavy criticism in recent months for its plans to demolish the building, its members would like to see the building preserved, he said.

"If the Board of Education was not interested in trying to restore the building, and all the rumors, allegations, and malicious comments were true, then we would be looking at a brand new parking lot and green grass," Fidler said. "Everyone wants to save the building, but so far no one has come forward with a checkbook."

To date, no one has come up with a feasible proposal for the use of the building, he said.

The school board has given the town of Bel Air almost two years to come up with a developer, a group, or funds to pay to restore the building, he said.

"The truth is that neither the town nor the county has the money to preserve the building," Fidler said. "And there's no one to subsidize the cost of making it into offices, a bed-and-breakfast, or any of the preposterous other ideas that people are suggesting for its use."

In recent months, inquiries have been made by people interested in converting the building into condominiums or offices, Schlehr said.

"There are a lot of ways the building could be used," he said. "But I would like to see it used for an educational purpose because that's why it was constructed."

Some preservationists claim the property cannot be demolished without permission of the historic preservation committee, but the building is not on a registered historic list, Fidler said. Therefore the laws on demolition of a historic place do not apply, he said.

However, on Wednesday, the building was named to Endangered Maryland, a statewide list that contains threatened historic properties in Maryland.

The sites, which are randomly listed, were selected by a panel that assesses nominated sites based on the level of threat, historic and architectural significance, community commitment and potential solutions.

"We put out the list to bring attention to the sites, generate public awareness, and bring about a call for action," said Jessica Feldt, the education and outreach director for Preservation Maryland, the state's oldest historic preservation organization.

The list is modeled after the nationwide list created each year by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, she said.

Any decision for the use of the building has to be acceptable to everybody, including the town of Bel Air, the county executive, the community, the City Council, and the Board of Education, Fidler said.

In the event that a plausible use for the building is found, it will take a year or more to develop and implement it, he said.

"Ultimately I have to do what's best for the 600 or so students who attend Bel Air Elementary," Fidler said. "I will not encumber those students to repair that building. Who is going to go into the PTA meeting at Bel Air Elementary and tell the parents of the children who attend the school that it will be at least another year and a half before the children have a place to play."

Recently, the board began discussions to determine if anyone within the school district might have a need for the building, he said.

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