Town saving its history
Appeal Staff Writer
The future of the Silver City Schoolhouse Community Center is very much rooted in its past.
Old floor boards have found new life as wainscoting, ceiling boards have become trim and old siding is connected to the new as tightly as the residents of this historic town are attached to their schoolhouse.
That attachment drove the community when one of the biggest tragedies in the town’s history occurred on July 7, 2004 – the 136-year-old schoolhouse caught fire.
The 150 or so residents of the town didn’t spend much time grieving. Less than a week after the fire, they formed various committees and set to work preparing to replace the 1867 building.
They cleared the debris by hand to salvage every possible item for incorporation into the new community center; not only the adults, but the children of the town as well.
“We had people just crawling over this wreckage for a long time,” said archaeology professor Ron Reno. “We went through it by hand.”
That effort saved the county a lot of money, according to town board president Eric Obermayr. Though the county paid for supplies, they didn’t have to pay workers to clear the site of the burned-out building.
Every brick used in the new building is original with the town’s children cleaning soot from the old bricks.
“We wanted to include them but they were limited in what they could do,” Obermayr said. “We salvaged it brick by brick. Again these are things the county didn’t have to buy.”
The townspeople preserved and catalogued artifacts, mapped out where every salvageable piece of building material was found. They also prepared a report on the project, which could help future communities faced with a similar tragedy.
Reno, a longtime resident, headed up the archaeology committee. As the buildings were cleared, he found things they didn’t know were there.
They found the foundation of a building that pre-dated the schoolhouse, boys and girls privies, many bottles, pieces of clothing and desks.
They also discovered that when new flooring was put in the building in 1900 and again in the 1930s, it was just laid over the old flooring. So three different types of flooring were salvaged and put to use.
The flooring from 1867 became the wainscoting on the main floor – complete with students’ initials carved in the boards – in the entryway. Flooring from 1900 and 1936 became wainscoting in two rooms on the main floor, complete with marks from the desks and chairs. Wood from all three years has now become the basement walls.
“We would have never discovered the layers if we hadn’t dismantled the building,” Obermayr said. “If they had bulldozed it, that would have all been lost.”
Some of the wood has orange paint splashed on it, and that’s part of the building’s history too, Reno said.
During the 1930s, the buildings trim was painted orange, he said, because there was government surplus orange paint available.
“They used the orange as primer coat, and for the trim,” he said. “They knew they would replace the floor, so they could be as messy as they wanted to be, and they were, leaving it for us to find.”
The basement walls were also put in with volunteer labor from the community, after they cleaned and stained all the salvaged wood they could.
There are new things in the building.
First, the new building is all on one level, where the old one was split-level. An elevator went to the lower level – when it worked. Two rooms are separated by old-fashioned pocket doors.
The architecture committee put together by the town worked with Cathexes Inc. to come up with the new design, which enhances the buildings usefulness as well as makes it easier to adhere to the Americans for Disabilities act.
“This gives amazing versatility to this space,” Reno said. “Just putting it on one level makes a world of difference.”
Also different is the porch, where many bands played for the town’s celebrated Fireman’s Balls, one of which will be held this year. Since the porch is lower, without rails, the musicians will have an easier time setting up and the crowd in the park outside will be better able to see them, Obermayr said.
The porch was also made with salvaged wood from the old building.
There were changes in the south facade, which, when the school was built in 1867, had two porticos modeled after Greek architecture. But in the years after the school closed, part of the building was used for a volunteer fire department, and the porticos were removed in favor of a large door for the fire truck. Now one portico was put back.
The building also sports an updated, commercial kitchen that meets county code, and a fireproof vault in the basement to hold town records.
The project manager on the site, Dale DeLie of Building Solutions LLC, which had the low bid on the project at $763,073, said the community can begin moving in on April 4.
Disputes with the county’s third-party insurance carrier, Lloyd’s of London, and their representatives, Alternative Service Concepts of Sparks, led to long delays in the rebuilding process. County commissioners in October 2006 decided to use surplus building maintenance funds to rebuild the building.
In February 2007, Building Solutions LLC of Reno was awarded the contract after offering the low bid of $763,078.
First the center was to be done by Dec. 24, 2007, then by Jan. 23. But bad weather and late changes made that impossible.
“It’s a little behind schedule, but we hope it’s what they wanted,” DeLie said, adding that he expected the project cost to be close to the bid.
There’s still some landscaping to do, but the folks in Silver City are excited about moving into the building they have waited so long to see.
“It will be absolutely fantastic,” Obermayr said.
But their excitement about the new building doesn’t completely assuage their pain of losing the old. They have even constructed a memorial to the old schoolhouse, built with salvaged material. It was designed by Reno and put together, in the Silver City tradition, by volunteers from the community.
The memorial is a triangular creation made by structural timbers from floor boards and joists, holding a triangle that will have photos and text explaining the items used. There’s an old siren the fire department used that was atop the original building. Reno said it no longer works, or it would have been put back. There’s window sash weights, a copper roof to the bell tower, a rosette from the flagpole and the square frame from the 1867 crawl space.
A harp from a piano hangs down, with a history all its own.
Reno said resident Lynn Hughes brought a piano from the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco that had been played by some of that regions biggest rock stars. It was placed in the community center in Silver City, but was lost in the fire.
But the harp was salvaged, and hangs from the large triangular memorial as a tribute to the spirit of the town that worked hard to save its own history.
• Contact reporter Karen Woodmansee at email@example.com or 881-7351.