PORTSMOUTH — Residents who posted “Preserve the Chapel” signs around town got their wish Monday night.
In an unanimous vote, the Town Council agreed to tear down the Elmhurst Elementary School — closed now for three years — but spare the chapel and music room that connects the building to the Glen Manor House.
The council vote allocates no more than $335,200 to pay JR Vinagro Corporation to demolish the school and remove asbestos from the building in a job that could start before the end of the month.
One of the deciding factors in the council’s decision was the Glen Manor House’s need for storage space for its operations. The building is rented out for wedding receptions, parties and other events and turns a profit to the town of about $200,000 annually.
If the chapel and music room were torn down, the town would need to build a new storage facility for the Manor House. The low bid for that project, from the Damon Company of Newport, came in at $658,730, which some council members said seemed excessive.
The town actually went out to bid twice on a storage facility, pointed out council member Molly Magee, who said she was disappointed that the second round came in higher than the first.
Ms. Magee said she wanted to see the chapel area saved. “But I would hate to see us mothball that building,” she said — a sentiment shared by several council members.
Council member Elizabeth Pedro said she wished the town had not rejected the nonprofit Aquidneck Land Trust’s offer of over $1 million to go toward the demolition of the building in exchange for a perpetual easement to protect the site and surrounding property from developers.
Also discussed Monday night was the School Department’s 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 estimated that it would cost anywhere from $6 to $8 million to build a new school administration building that would meet the district’s needs, compared to $500,000 to $750,000 to turn the cloisters into offices. The space could also be used for teacher workshops, rather than having the district rent space at Roger Williams University.
“All we want is the highest and best use for the property because once we tear it down, we’ll never have again,” said Mr. Croston, who said he also favored saving the old art and music rooms because they contain the utilities for the Glen Manor House.
Council member Keith Hamilton, however, disputed Mr. Croston’s cost estimate of constructing a new administration building. He also said putting office space in the former Elmhurst building wouldn’t be convenient for most taxpayers.
Council member Elizabeth Pedro didn’t like Mr. Croton’s proposal as well. “I don’t think office space is the highest use of this property,” she said.
What to do with the chapel?
Although the chapel will be saved, it’s unclear what it will be used for.
“If we don’t demolish the chapel, what are we going to do with it? “ asked Council President James Seveney. “Because one way or another, it’s going to cost us.”
Andrew Kelly of the School Committee, who led efforts to preserve the chapel, has set up a nonprofit with the goal of using the space for public performances. The chapel could accommodate students holding concerts of rehearsals, said resident Kathy Melvin.
“It is valuable,” she said.
On member David Gleason’s motion, the council voted to direct Finance Director David Faucher to formally seek requests from interested parties for ideas on the chapel.
Mr. Croston said the School Department is interested in working with the town on efforts to retain the chapel. “It does make a very nice community asset,” he said.