The former Walley School building stands as a dominant fixture at the intersection of State and High streets.
The red brick is well intact, but the white from the windowsills is slowing streaking down.
From the outside, it appears to be in good shape. However, once the double glass doors open, the derelict status of the once proud elementary school is overwhelming. Faded paint is peeling off the walls in strips. Walls have been damage, and in some places holes reveal the brick beneath the plaster.
The classrooms, once bustling with eager students, prepped and ready to learn, are now vacant. Treads on the floor mark the path most traveled to and from room to room, and down the halls.
In one room, a lesson plan chalked out on a green board is still visible.
“It’s as if the school got out for summer and everyone just left,” said Matt Caldoreco, buildings manager for the Bristol Warren School District.
The Walley School building has stood vacant now for nearly 15 years. It was used here-and-there by community groups. But the cost to maintain the building superseded the need and its doors were closed permanently several years ago. The heat was turned off and it slowly deteriorated to its current state.
Harland Meltzer does care, though. For his vision, the Walley School would make an excellent multi-arts center.
“My idea was to take that building and retro-fit it and put in a theater,” said Mr. Meltzer, founder and producing artistic director of the Colonial Theater, currently based in Westerly.
For several years, Mr. Meltzer has been searching the state for a building to expand upon its annual Shakespeare Festival, soon to be in its 22nd year. It’s the largest theater festival in the state, drawing in hundreds each summer to view the performances.
“We are looking to establish something more toward the northerly part of the state to make our work more available to those in the state, and to be near a larger population center,” he said.
The arts center would have a large educational component to it, Mr. Meltzer said.
“We would house in this building a professional theater company,” he explained. “But we would also be offering a wide range of classes in various theater disciplines. There is also an idea to have space for art galleries, rehearsal rooms and be able to use the classrooms for things like dance classes. We’d offer music lessons, both vocal and instrumental.
“Really, it’s only limited by imagination.”
Mr. Melzter submitted his proposal to the Town of Bristol, which was looked upon favorably, said Diane Williamson, Director of Community Development. The town had sent out a request for proposals for the repurposing of the building. In the few months since the RFP was published, there has been little interest shown. Only Mr. Meltzer’s proposal has generated promise.
“Right now I am hoping to partner with Roger Williams University students and the CPC to help in this process,” Mr. Meltzer added.
His interest in Bristol stemmed from a production he worked on at the university recently.
“I was very impressed by the people I was meeting,” he said. “They understood the value of the arts in every day life, in the educational process, in terms of community and understood the value of the arts as a potential economic engine.”
Mr. Meltzer has already established a collaboration with the school district in offering a series of arts programs this year to high school students. Through that partnership, the theater will have access to the Mt. Hope’s stage for professional shows next summer.
“I approached (Roger Williams) to take this on and work with the Colonial Theater to make this happen,” Mr. Meltzer said of the Walley School. “This is a large project. This is not a project that I am lukewarm about the value of. With every fiber of my being, I believe this is a great value to the communities that we would like to serve.”
To renovate the building for use would cost at least $500,000, Mr. Caldoreco estimated.
The Walley School is one of three town-owned buildings on High Street that have been repurposed, or in need of repurposing. The Reynolds School, a former arts magnet school, is now home to an arts collaborative, which the Colonial Theater is a part of. The collaborative also includes the Guiteras Performing Group and the Bristol Theater Company.
“We are working out our pilot year for all of us to use the space together,” said Cheryl Burns, co-director of the Guiteras Performing Arts Group. “It may evolve after we see what happens after this year. It would be nice if we could get productions year-round. We could participate in arts night, have tourist attractions and family programming.”
The first production in the school will be “A Christmas Carol,” and then “Wizard of Oz.”
The school is currently being used to house the Recreation Department’s programs, such as yoga and zumba. The Bristol Substance Abuse Task Force is also housed there.
“All of them will move over to the community center once it’s finished,” Ms. Williamson said.
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