East Willson School, the red brick building that has stood on Bozeman’s Main Street for 110 years, is in sad shape, and the School Board is trying once again to decide whether to fix it, sell it or raze it.

School Board trustees have begun what’s likely to be months of discussion between school leaders and the community about the historic building’s fate.

“It’s a great building – I’d love to see it preserved,” School Board Chairman Bruce Grubbs said Monday night, “but it’s not our role. We need to spend money for kids. If we do nothing, it’s just going to become a real liability, and somebody could get hurt or worse.

“I think we should try to sell it, and if we can’t, we should tear it down,” Grubbs said. “We can’t keep kicking it down the road. We can’t keep putting it off. It’s getting more and more expensive and more and more dangerous.”

School Board trustees informally agreed to investigate possibly selling the building to a developer, someone who could spend the estimated $6 million needed to bring it up to modern building and safety codes.

Trustees asked Kevin Barre, the district’s facilities director, to come back later this summer with a timeline and recommendations on how to go about requesting proposals.

“In my heart of hearts, I’d love to spend ($6 million) to retain it,” Trustee Denise Hayman said. But since it’s not big enough for a modern school, Hayman said, she’d like to see if someone is interested in using “this grand, important, historic building.”

Trustee Gary Lusin said renovation is “entirely too expensive,” and if the district does nothing, it will end up having to demolish the school anyway. He said finding a buyer would be his first option.

East Willson School, originally Gallatin County High School, was built of unreinforced brick and, though it survived the 1959 Hebgen Lake earthquake, it is expected to fail in a moderate quake, Barre said.

In an earthquake or fire, East Willson’s second and third floors would likely “pancake,” collapsing onto the first floor, because the floor supports are only resting on the brick walls, not tied in or supported by columns.

The 40,000-square-foot school is now used only for storage. It holds an assortment of auditorium risers, stage props, county records, broken furniture, old computers and the odd tuba.

In a fire, firefighters may just “watch it burn” because of the danger of sending anyone inside, said Steve Johnson, deputy superintendent.

Bozeman’s fire marshal has requested fire sprinklers be installed, which would cost $180,000. But to support the weight of fire sprinklers, broken ceilings would have to be replaced, which would add to the cost.

Courtney Kramer, the city of Bozeman’s historic preservation officer, said there are federal tax incentives that could attract developers – a 20 percent credit for historic preservation and another 20 percent if it were turned into low-income housing.

“The cheaper you can sell, the more likely it is so to be saved,” Kramer said.

Even without advertising, two out-of-state developers contacted the school district last year about converting the school into low-income housing, Barre said.

East Willson has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1987. It was used as a high school, middle school, fifth-sixth-grade school and magnet science school until 1998.

In 2000 an architect’s study estimated renovation would cost $3.3 million to $4.6 million. When the possibility of demolishing the school came up, it sparked a community outcry.

In 2000 and 2001, the School Board received several proposals for using the building — as Bozeman’s City Hall, a new library, Gallatin County office space, low-income elderly apartments, a bed and breakfast, private offices and shops, and a home for nonprofits. The City Hall proposal was preferred, but ultimately city leaders decided it wouldn’t work.

Barre gave the, Chronicle a tour of the building Tuesday. Some rooms were in OK shape, while others have extensive water damage. Roof leaks were once so bad, the water was collected in a kiddie wading pool.

Ceiling tiles have buckled and fallen, light fixtures broken, floor tiles popped up, wooden floors warped, paint peeled and wall plaster disintegrated.

In the “dungeon,” the old boiler room, the 1902 foundation can be seen — stacked rock with a little mortar. In the 1917 rear addition, the foundation is concrete.

Outside, some stone ledges are deteriorating and some bricks are missing.

On the plus side, the pride the original builders put into the school can still be seen in its stamped-tin decorative wainscoting, oak banisters and architectural details in the rounded windows, columns and brickwork.

A new roof was installed in 2007, with a $110,000 federal grant and $90,000 in school district money. After the 2010 hailstorm, the district spent $91,000 on roof repairs, which officials hope will be covered by insurance.

The west side of Willson School was built in 1937 with thick concrete walls and poses no danger of pancaking in an earthquake. It houses the school central administrative offices and Willson Auditorium, the community’s largest performance space.

The latest report on East Willson, by architect Ben Lloyd and local engineers, estimates the cost of four options:

  • Doing nothing: at least $180,000 to install sprinklers.
  • Renovate and keep the building: $6 million for major renovation.
  • Sell: $282,000 to disconnect from West Willson and replace a restroom. Any private buyer would need parking; the school district still owns most of the grassy yard west of the Emerson Center, once appraised at $506,000.
  • Demolish: $492,000, or more if hazardous materials like asbestos are found.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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