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HHS to get new classroom facility; historic building renovation shelved




Hendersonville High’s 1926 Stillwell Building is at left, shown from Bearcat Blvd. on varsity football opening night Saturday. Structures doomed for demolition next to Stillwell are (L-R) the annex, press box, old gym and new gym. The former Boyd tract is afar, at right. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

By Pete Zamplas-   Ninety-year-old Hendersonville High School will get a facial cleansing of sorts, but not the prompt and complete body makeover many alumni sought from county commissioners — to continue its use for instruction, joined by a new classroom building.

Instead, the board last week unanimously voted to instead carry on with the project it approved this spring, with costs around $53 million and another $2 to spruce up the school’s main building rather than fully renovate it.

The project calls for a new 800-student classroom building, 1450-seat gym, and auditorium seating 800 or more. Classrooms and the gym are penciled in to go on recently-acquired Boyd Auto property next to HHS, rather than on existing campus.

Commissioners put full renovation of the original classroom “Stillwell Building” on the back burner, as more of a remote possibility than priority.

Commissioner Charlie Messer pledged at the meeting Aug. 17 the county will not “demolish” three-story Stillwell. Chr. Tommy Thompson agreed it is “worth saving,” but not yet at least for a costly full renovation to still use for classes.

But two commissioners opened the door more. “If the school board wants to still use it for classrooms, it can be done,” Mike Edney said. Bill Lapsley, a civil engineer, agreed “should the school board decide to hold some selected classrooms in that building, I don’t see any reason why they can’t do that…to use as they see fit.”

The auditorium is HHS’s exterior jewel, and is to be preserved. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

The landmark HHS auditorium with its ornate classical Greek revival style and six massive exterior columns will remain for public and perhaps school use. Classical pianist prodigy Christopher Tavernier, an HHS tenth-grader, likes its acoustics as a “wonderful place.” Sarah Kassem, Class of ’15, acted on stage. “The room has an old-fashioned feel that makes students take pride in the school’s history. The room is also a comfortable, warm, and a very welcoming one.”

A new school main building can last around 50 years, agreed proponents of rival plans — architect Chad Roberson whose plan the county is going with, and Laurel Park Mayor Carey O’Cain who often got thunderous pro-HHS applause.

The two men differed on an omitted issue — how well and long a renovated Stillwell would last. Projections have ranged from 25 to 40 or more years. “The existing structure is extremely sound. Its ‘bones’ are fabulous,” O’Cain told The Tribune. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it (if renovated) were still standing, another 90 years from now.”

But Roberson warned “it’s still a 90-year-old building,” prone to many breakdowns. He heads the Asheville office of Clark Nexsen, designer of five project options the school board then commissioners reviewed.

The 1936 old grey granite gym and new gym beside it will soon be history. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

Retired Hendersonville City Schools Supt. Charlie Byrd told The Tribune the 1926 building was much sounder-built than the vocational annex that is nearly a half-century old. Due for demolition are the annex, circa-1970 cafeteria, band room, and both gyms. Jim Pardue Gymnasium (as it was later named) opened in 1976. Its 80-year-old, grey granite predecessor was a works-relief project in 1936, and is the football fieldhouse. Most alumni have lobbied solely to preserve the 1926 Stillwell Building, not the others.

In an interim step, Edney’s motion unanimously passed to fix Stillwell’s water leakage by replacing its roof and waterproofing brick exteriors for about $2 million. This costs much less than $13 estimated for full renovation. It is called the “Stillwell Building” after noted designer Erle Stillwell (1885-1978) who designed HHS. Many bricks likely need replacing, Roberson later said.

Principal Bobby Wilkins, who hoped Stillwell would get renovated for continued class use, told The Tribune he is “glad” for basic repairs. New Supt. Bo Caldwell added that will “keep it up” in the short term.

Stillwell could last longer and thus need less renovation with lower foot traffic — from such mentioned options of a non-profit or the school central office — than from hundreds of students. Caldwell said there is no dire need to move offices out of the former Rosa Edwards school.

Going a step at a time with Stillwell saves tax dollars. The county by a 3-2 vote increased its 2016-17 tax rate 9.7 percent —by five cents, up to 56.5 cents per $100 of assessed property. That produces $6.4 million more in the $130.3 million ‘16-17 budget. That helps pay yearly debt to build a new HHS and Edneyville Elementary (in place of the 1926 school), new $13 million emergency services complex, and health sciences instruction facility by Pardee Hospital.


The southwest corner of HHS shows the Stillwell Building. To the left includes the cafeteria, band room and new gym all set to be demolished. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

Most of nearly four hours of debate was on O’Cain’s plan, backed by the HHS Alumni Association but dismissed by commissioners without call for more inquiry. The 1972 HHS grad’s degree is in architectural construction. He is a retired senior projects manager. Commissioners doubted his plan would indeed cost much less. They deemed it similar to a school board-endorsed (by a 4-3 vote) CN option they had shot down before.

Both the CN and O’Cain plans have hidden costs and deficiencies, the other side asserted. Roberson insisted “we’re completely confident” in cost projections. O’Cain said construction costs can drop “a ton” by using more brick than glass (for more daylight). County Capital Projects Mgr. David Berry called Roberson’s plan “the way to go. Commissioner Grady Hawkins sees it as the “best option.”

Already Over Capacity

A central concern of this chosen plan is if the 800-student classroom capacity is enough handle HHS student growth, and if not if trailers will be needed.

Enrollment has already risen from 750 in spring when the plan was approved to 822 students now and 900 surpassed in a year, HHS principal Bobby Wilkins said. This is due to the Class of 2018, now juniors, numbering an HHS-record 239 and input of Hendersonville Middle’s large eighth-grade class as freshmen in fall ‘17.

O’Cain’s plan provides for 1150 students. He calls for a new 800-capacity, three-story, stylistic twin to Stillwell across the plaza from it. He planned on using half of Stillwell with new larger rooms and new interior walls, with an option to use more space as needed. The auditorium juts out from Stillwell; O’Cain aimed to expand it further into the building to gain more seating.

School board member Rick Wood advised The Tribune that the larger enrollment a school is built to handle, the bigger and much costlier are its other core buildings (cafeteria, library, auditorium, gym bleachers). Too large and unused is a waste, while too small overcrowds. It costs much more to expand later.

The board is committing to retain HHS’ location near Five Points at the northern gateway to Downtown Hendersonville. That is not a given. Edney, a ’78 HHS grad, mentioned the option of swapping land for 50 acres up for sale off Blythe Street by N.C. 191 several blocks west of campus. He noted 50 acres is what the state recommends for a high school campus.

HHS now has 15-18 acres, O’Cain said, and would eat up 1.5 acres to provide an ideal number of 200 parking spaces. HHS has long lacked much parking. HHS plays baseball and tennis off-campus. Football practices are blocks away, at the middle school. Nearby Boyd Park’s two tennis courts cannot fit a full team practice.

Reigning number one male tennis seed, senior Christian Maxey, told The Tribune he is fine playing off campus and hopes HHS’ site is retained. “Any hurdles (inconveniences) are worth the pride from Bearcat sports and extra-curriculars.” He led HHS’ Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA).

The third-generation Bearcat hopes as an alumnus to get to “walk the same halls.” While Edney noted modernized classrooms would lose the familiar feel, Maxey echoed O’Cain’s emphasis that the iconic Stillwell facade is at the heart of memories and moreso if it is still used for classrooms.

A key result of retaining the current site (once a plum thicket) for Bearcat sports fans is football and soccer games will still be played on Dietz Field, with indoor sports in new facilities.

HHS principal Bobby Wilkins, at left, and athletic director Eric Gash enjoy a light moment Saturday night. They are on the track, which may be widened leftward. HHS’ 90-year-old Stillwell Building is behind the concession stand. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

The track is too narrow to meet sanctions and can be widened, by shifting home bleachers back with the annex no longer in the way, O’Cain said. Edney pledged to see this is done. Edney tossed in a plug for artificial turf, which the board has resisted. The next night, a rain-drenched field postponed the Bearcats’ varsity football opener to Saturday night.

Above all campus spots, “the senior circle should be preserved,” Kassem said. “It’s been a tradition for seniors to eat outside at the circle. We relaxed in the middle of the day, ate lunch, and socialized while enjoying the weather.”

Bill Moyer, who served as a commissioner to 2010 and was chairman, said when the board last decade spoke of buying the Boyd land but to renovate HHS.

To instead place new classrooms on the Boyd section triggers several issues. One, it keeps students away from Stillwell. That makes it far quieter for anyone who moves into Stillwell. But should it again house HHS classes, students with classes in both buildings would have a further walk in bad weather.

O’Cain charged the Boyd area is far too small, to squeeze in classrooms and gyms. Second, it lacks the campus’ stadium bleachers as a noise buffer from nearby U.S. 25 North. A hill could be built up. Lapsley noted “today’s construction materials can mitigate noise.” Further, the new main gym could buffer sound for classrooms. For now at least, the gym is planned as closest to the main road. Since it much noisier than classes, it is less disrupted by exterior sound. Commissioners voiced faith in CN’s noise study indicating disruptions are minor.

But O’Cain said when standing as far back as classrooms would be from busy 25 and Five Points intersection, he sensed noticeably loud noise and vibration from trucks, cars and boom boxes. His plan has parking on the Boyd side by 25 and Ninth Avenue, such as exists now for Bearcat games. The dead-ending one block of Ninth will be closed, torn apart, with its surface helping expand the campus northward.

The school at 311 Bearcat Blvd. (Eighth Ave. W.) was dedicated Dec. 3, 1926. The first city high school opened in 1901 at Fleming and Third in the Judson College Building. Then in 1919 it was in the former Noterman House in what is now Boyd Park, between North Main and 25/Church Street.

HHS senior Zack Cagle is glad Stillwell can remain for reunions, rather than be torn down. “If it’s not there, it takes away the sense the school was ever there.”

The preliminary completion date for the new school is 2020. Tavernier, Class of 2019, said “whether my class is the last or not” in Stillwell, “it’s an honor to be a part of such an amazing school.”

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