The Bozeman School Board voted Monday to take a step toward selling the redbrick, east half of Willson School, in hopes a private buyer would develop the historic building and save it from the wrecking ball.

At the same time, the board voted to approve an architect’s design for renovating Willson Auditorium, in hopes of updating the city’s largest performance space.

Trustees voted 7-0 in favor of the two separate but related projects.

Selling the century-old East Willson School is something that he has worked on his entire career, said Steve Johnson, deputy superintendent. To think it might happen is exciting, he added.

The school district has been in negotiations for 10 months with Bridger Builders of Bozeman, which has been investigating whether it could renovate the old school into residential condominiums.

No deal has been reached yet, but it’s getting close enough that the School Board voted Monday to declare the building “obsolete, undesirable and unsuitable” as a school. That’s one of the first legal steps toward selling it and the land it sits on.

The school district would keep the west half of Willson School, built of concrete in the late 1930s, which includes the auditorium.

“We’re going to save, hopefully, a grand old lady that a lot of people have fond memories of,” Trustee Denise Hayman said of the proposed sale of East Willson School.

Hayman recalled that when she first joined the School Board, people were saying, “Let’s tear it down.” Now, she said, she has her fingers crossed that the sale will happen and save the old building. “It’s going to be a gem.”

East Willson was last used for classrooms in 1992 and last held school offices in 2002.

The other project involving Willson School is the proposed facelift for its aging auditorium, estimated to cost up to $3.8 million. The School Board is relying on the nonprofit Bozeman Schools Foundation to raise nearly all the money.

The foundation has worked hard and raised $2.2 million so far, director Mary Jo O’Donnell said.

That would be enough to do the “basic” project – fixing up the auditorium, stage and “back of the house” area, improving acoustics and refurbishing existing seats. Ben Lloyd of Comma-Q Architecture estimated the basic project would cost $1.8 million.

If more donations can be raised, then it would be possible to add in one or more of the three “alternate” parts of the project.

The first alternate would replace a large ramp with an elevator, stairs and restrooms, at a cost of $700,000. The second would fix up the lobby area, estimated at $300,000. The third would partition the west side of the upstairs library to create a couple conference or storage rooms, for $200,000.

Comma-Q’s designs will be used to seek builders’ bids for the March 24 School Board meeting. That allows just a few more weeks for the foundation to see if it can raise more than $1 million.

Rob Watson, school superintendent, said he was “anxiously optimistic” more money can be raised in a few weeks.

“I know the community loves the arts and the Willson,” Watson said.

It hosts performances from the Intermountain Opera and Bozeman Symphony to Bozeman High’s Hawks Night Live and “The Nutcracker” ballet.

Asked how much the school district would be willing to contribute to the project, Watson said the School Board would have to decide how to prioritize competing building needs. School officials do feel a responsibility, he said, to fix up bathrooms, especially those that would be lost if East Willson School were sold, and to fix up lobby ceiling tiles.

School officials said legally it would be possible to do the basic auditorium renovation, even if there weren't enough money to install an elevator, despite handicapped access requirements of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 582-2633.