PORTSMOUTH — Although the School Department is proposing to turn part of the former Elmhurst School building into office space for school administration, several Town Council members Tuesday night said they’d rather tear most of it down.
Doing so would restore the property to its original spendor and greatly enhance the operations of the Glen Manor House, a proven money-maker for the town, they said.
“Look at that picture. That is our ace in the hole right now,” council member Elizabeth Pedro said as she pointed to an aerial photo from the 1930s that showed the property before the school and chapel were built. “I just think that it should all go.”
The town’s budget has $550,000 set aside for demolition work on the site and the town has agreed to pay JR Vinagro Corporation $335,500 to demolish the school and remove asbestos from the building. (Asbestos removal was expected to begin this week.) The town has had recent discussions, however, about exploring the cost of tearing down only the northern portion of the school and not the chapel or music room.
Tuesday’s workshop was scheduled to request additional funding for the mothballing of the school chapel, but no major decisions were made. The council did vote unanimously to expend additional funds — estimated at less than $10,000 — to pay the architectural firm it hired, Durkee Brown Viveiros Werenfels, to work with Town Administrator John Klimm to come up with a plan on available options and their related costs.
“It’s pretty clear we won’t be spending money to mothball the building,” Council President James Seveney said.
Mothballing a building means making sure it’s using minimal electricity and heat, its plumbing has been prepped and maintained, it’s made weathertight and is secured from intruders, according to Ashley Prester of the architectural firm.
The council will also meet with the School Committee in late November or early December to further discuss its proposal to turn the 24 cloisters on the east side of the chapel into much-needed office space for school administration.
School Committee Chairman David Croston said the district has outgrown its administration building on Middle Road, and the cloisters — formerly used as bedrooms for nuns who had taught at Elmhurst when it was a girls’ Catholic school — are ideal for offices. He also said the space could be used for returning the special education program back to the district in the future, although he wasn’t prepared to speak about that in detail.
“While our focus is on the cloisters, we do not intend to touch the chapel or upgrade that facility one iota. That is for future consideration,” said Mr. Croston. “If you take down the chapel, the cloisters come with it.”
Mr. Croston said if the school administration offices were moved, the Middle Road building could be given back to the town for whatever use it sees fit. He said the School Committee needs to study the cost of its proposal further before sitting down with the council again.
After Mr. Croston left the council chambers — he had another meeting to attend — several council members expressed doubt that the Elmhurst building would make sense for school office space.
“I wouldn’t want the School Department down there; it’s too far away. Why aren’t they looking at the (south) end of Coggeshall?” asked Ms. Pedro.
Council member David Gleason agreed. “I respect the School Department for thinking about how they can use this building, but I don’t think it’s practical for them,” he said.
There are too many variables, he said, to know how to re-use the building. “We don’t know if people are going to step forward and say, ‘I can make this profitable,’” said Mr. Gleason.
For now, however, the town is still open to ideas. Mr. Gleason said an open house will be held in the Elmhurst building starting at 10 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 31, for people interested in making proposals.
Several council members and audience members said demolishing the school and chapel would open up the property to the waterfront and greatly enhance the profitability of the Glen Manor House, which is rented out for weddings and other functions.
While the School Committee should be heard, said Council Vice President John Blaess, “I would like to see the whole thing torn down. I would like to see it restored to its original beauty.”
Richard Wimpress, chairman of the Glen Manor House Authority, said the additional space would allow the mansion to include a tent area that could bring in more dollars from corporate functions and other events. “We have contributed close to $2 million to the town general fund and we have used $1.3 million of our income to enhance the property,” he said. “This is an established track record.”
Mr Wimpress said “if the Manor House was to stand alone in all of its magnificence,” it would also become more attractive for movie shoots. Katie Wilkinson, the Manor House’s resident manager, said a profit of $30,000 was once made from only four days of filming.
Ms. Wilkinson said tearing down the school and chapel would allow the Manor House group “to re-brand our mansion as an estate.”
Leave music room
Council member Keith Hamilton said it would be too expensive to remodel the chapel space for office or classroom use.
“My thought process is to chop it off at the north part of the music room,” Mr. Hamilton said, noting that would provide more heat to the Manor House — the music area also contains the boiler room — as well as storage.
That music area would also have to be demolished at some point, however, because it isn’t part of the original site plan, he said. The town could build a separate storage building for the Manor House in the future, he said. (The current cost estimate for storage is $632,000.)
Two residents spoke in favor of the School Committee’s proposal. Peter Roberts said the Elmhurst site would be better for school administration offices because it’s in a safer location. “We have a building that we can actually use,” he added.
Allen Shers, a longtime real estate appraiser, said it would be far more expensive to build new office space than transforming what’s already at Elmhurst. Locating school offices at such a desirable location as the Glen would also be good business for the town, he said.
“One of the main reasons people move out here is because of our school systems,” he said.