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Cabell school officials ready to mitigate loss of old orphanage

Jul. 18, 2010 @ 10:45 PM

HUNTINGTON -- Cabell school officials have put together a plan to mitigate the loss of the West Virginia Colored Children's Home, required for a property on the National Register of Historic Places.

The old orphanage, which closed in 1956 and was later reopened and converted to apartment space by Marshall University, is located along U.S. 60, on property where a new middle school is to be built.

The roughly 12-acre property also includes a handful of two-story apartment buildings that will be demolished. But the orphanage also must be torn down.

According to federal law, when state or federal money is involved in the renovation or demolition of a historical property, the loss much be mitigated. That means, in this case, that the school system must find a way to keep the historical story of the site alive.

The school board's mitigation plan includes two key components: The current schools will collaborate in creating a collection of digital photographs, videos and recorded personal interviews of living persons who were orphans in the home or their descendants; and there may be pieces of the existing building that could be used in the construction of a commemorative memorial or of the new school itself.

Complete details of the school board's plan will be discussed at a special meeting from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday, July 22, at the board office, 2850 5th Ave., Huntington. The meeting also will serve to give the public a chance to speak on the issue, and officials expect both advice on the mitigation plan and criticism for tearing down a historic structure.

Among those who plan to speak are Karen Nance, a local historic preservationist who was recently involved in a lawsuit against the school board regarding acquisition of the U.S. 60 property, and Velma Bernie Layne, a representative from the West Virginia Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen. Both are against demolishing the home and believe architects can save the home and build a new school on the property.

They both also expressed disappointment with Superintendent William Smith and board member Bennie Thomas, who are both black.

"When you've got African Americans on the board and as superintendent, they know the history of the people," Layne said. "And they're not sensitive enough to say, 'Hey, we need to keep the building.'

"There's something wrong with them and their credentials. They just don't care," Layne added.

The home's deterioration

Plans for the home must be submitted to and reviewed by the State Historic Preservation Office, but there's not much the office can do to stop the school board from tearing down the home.

"The law does not allow us to really do anything else," Nance said. "The state, they don't have a choice."

The full mitigation plan can be found at www.cabellcountyschools.com. Most of the documents provide background on the need for a new middle school for Enslow and Beverly Hills and why this property is the best place to build it. There also is a summary of the West Virginia Colored Children's Home that includes both a historical and physical description.

The physical description includes a long list of renovations, most of which were done after Marshall took over the property in 1961. Among those are the addition of two interior stairways, the transformation of interior rooms into apartments, the addition of vinyl siding to cover parts of the building that were deteriorating, and the large wood columns on the central porch that are now covered with aluminum.

"None of these revisions were particularly well-designed or well-constructed, nor were they in keeping with the original architectural style of the structure," the school report states. "The building has been in substantial disrepair for several years, and it bears little resemblance to its condition at the time of the historically significant use.

"Due to these alterations and detonations, any architectural significance the building once had is now greatly diminished, and its historical significance is diminished as well. At this point, the legacy of the West Virginia Colored Children's Home and the children who lived there would be better preserved by the mitigation initiatives ... than by the existence, and continued deterioration, of the structure in its current state."

The mitigation plan

The school board's mitigation plan also includes a section about possible alternatives to demolition. But it is not compatible with state code for a school even with some renovations. The ground to ceiling space is too small for a sufficient heating and air conditioning system, and none of the three floors are large enough to house classrooms, planning and other space needed for a full grade level.

Another roadblock cited is funding. The state's School Building Authority has given a grant to pay for the construction of the new middle school, but the funds cannot be used for renovations. And the board must follow a timeline laid out by the SBA, starting with the design phase down to the start of construction.

"Not only is the cost of renovating an old building often greater than the cost of building a new one, but a potential renovation of the Children's Home would be even more costly than most, due to factors including the sheer age of the building, the numerous budget-conscious renovations the building has already been through, and the probable need to integrate the existing structure with substantial additional structure," states the board's report.

The plan calls on the students of Enslow and Beverly Hills to research and collect photos, videos and interviews to help in the shaping of an ongoing, annual eighth-grade project-based learning activity. Among the proposed activities are creating a video walk-through of the building, interview adults who lived there or who had relatives who lived there, prepare a Wikipedia site about the home and dedicate a display visible in the new school about the home's history.

Other suggestions are using blueprints in math class in a replica-building project, getting the art classes involved in making stepping stones and the creation and illustration of a book that can be sold in local bookstores.

Neither Nance nor Layne are impressed by the language in the school board's plan. Nance said many of the renovations and architectural criticisms were present 13 years ago when the home was put on the National Register of Historic Places.

Both said the home could be restored and used as a much better teaching tool than an eighth-grade lesson in West Virginia history.

"I think if they tear the building down, there's nothing they can put in place to say what the history was," Layne said. "Those are things you do after the fact. But the fact is, the building is still here."

They both go a step further by saying that historical sites representing the history of African Americans are not being preserved.

"It seems like all the monuments for African Americans are disappearing," Layne said. "It would be nice to someday take my great-grandchildren through there and tell the story. I think the community needs to hold on to the building."

In a letter to the editor sent to The Herald-Dispatch July 15, Nance strongly criticizes the school board for aiding in the loss of African-American heritage in the Huntington community.

"If we allow this African-American Historic Site listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997 to be destroyed we are sending a message to our children that African-American heritage is not worth preserving," her letter states. "The proposed curriculum put together by students (and) overseen by unqualified staff, not professionals, and signage insults our community and paints us as ignorant hicks who do not understand the place our history and heritage plays in who we are as people."

Details of Thursday's public meeting

The purpose of the meeting is to obtain public input about the school board's plan to build a new middle school on the property known as University Heights.

Those who want to speak must sign up prior to the meeting's 5:30 p.m. start and will receive up to five minutes. A person's time cannot be yielded to another.

The public comments will be recorded and submitted to the State Historic Preservation Office.

Board members will be present to receive public comments and ensure that the comments are submitted, but they will not respond to comments during the meeting.

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