Nelsonville School Commons is one meticulous historical renovation project

Reprinted with permission from Athens Messenger, April 21, 2017.

By Larry Di Giovanni Messenger Staff Journalist

NELSONVILLE — When walking into one of the 33 apartments under construction at Nelsonville School Commons — a $9.6 million project that is turning the former Nelsonville Senior High and Junior High buildings into affordable housing units — one thing stands out.

It is how careful project developer The Woda
Group Inc. is being about preserving all features of the two iconic schools for its future occupants to enjoy. That means making efforts to preserve original fixtures — or replace with exact replicas if need be down to the minute detail — all windows, decorative tin ceilings in the junior high building, and ornamental molding around walls (cornices), just to name some items. Even the mortar between bricks must be true to its original color.

During a media tour Wednesday of construction completed to date, which is about one-third of the way there, one could see each one- or two- bedroom apartment taking shape. The tour was offered by Joseph McCabe, Woda Group vice president of development.

As one walked into what will become a 700 square foot, one-bedroom apartment in the senior high building built in 1924, greeting the visitor were old- style closet doors with small chalkboards on them. They are original fixtures from the school.

“This whole (former) classroom is one entire apartment,” McCabe explained as workers took to ladders to install sprinkler systems. McCabe noted that the former schools did not have sprinkler systems in their day.

Each apartment is being constructed with an open- concept design, which means the kitchens flow into the living room space. This particular apartment in the making had lots of chalkboards, including large ones in the kitchen area as one walks in. It also has a long closet that extends all the way from the kitchen into the bathroom area.

“Whoever lives here is going to enjoy all of this closet space,” McCabe offered.

The Junior High School building constructed in 1907, and the old high school 17 years its junior share one common entrance from Fayette Street that will serve as the main building entrance. Its foyer connects the two buildings. There will be an elevator near the entry, and all apartment units will be able to receive visits by persons covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The former Junior High School building features some apartments that will retain their decorative tin ceilings. A few units in the old high school will keep their skylights. One of those apartments, a large, two- bedroom unit of about 1,000 square feet, will keep pieces of exercise equipment near the ceiling that were used for gymnasts practicing mid-air twists.

Rocky Brands, which pulled out of Nelsonville School Commons this past fall, has left the former high school with additional space that was the school auditorium and stage, McCabe said. Part of this large area will be used by on-site building management as office space. The auditorium itself will become a large meeting room that can serve residents for uses such as holiday parties, weddings and other events.

There will also be a fitness room with exercise equipment for all tenants to enjoy located near the auditorium.

Behind the former Junior High School, an addition is being constructed on its backside. When completed it will house eight apartments total — four each on the first and second levels, McCabe said.

Nelsonville city officials will be glad to know of one development of which The Woda Group is certain, McCabe said.

“For the first time, these buildings will be put on the tax rolls to help pay for police and re protection and all that,” McCabe said. “Just to get people living here will help change the vitality of this neighborhood.”

Nelsonville School Commons has already erected signs stating that the affordable housing units will start at $465 per month and go “up into the $800s,” McCabe said. They are envisioned to be occupied by families and single occupants of the city workforce who seek long-term housing. Income guidelines will apply for residents, who will be chosen based on earning 60 percent of the area median income.

For now, the $9.6 million project is being financed over the short term through a bridge loan and a construction loan, McCabe said. Long-term funding includes three sources: Ohio Historic Preservation Tax Credits administered by the Ohio Development Services Agency; federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives through the National Park Service; and competitive housing tax credits made available through the Ohio Housing Finance Agency. The Ohio Capital Corporation for Housing is the investor for the credits.

The former high school building erected in 1924 served its last high school class in 1967 and then became a middle school for a time. The Nelsonville- York School District vacated the site in 1996 and then leased the building for a time. The old junior high school building was in much worse shape, McCabe said, with significant water damage sustained over the years. Its connecting bridge with the old high school was boarded up to keep the two buildings separate.

The city had condemned the former Junior High School in 2015 and its possible demolition was discussed, McCabe said.

In 1999, a group of concerned Nelsonville citizens who wished to preserve the old schools formed, called the Nelsonville Restoration Foundation. Its members formed a non-profit organization that held events and raised funds for more than 16 years to keep the buildings intact before selling them to The Woda Group for $95,000. The Nelsonville Restoration Foundation used part of the proceeds to benefit the scholarship fund of the Nelsonville High School Alumni Association, with other proceeds benefiting the Foundation for Appalachian Ohio.

McCabe said the effort that community members made to save their old schools will never be forgotten.

“We felt assured with Joe (McCabe) and the others from Woda (Group),” said Nelsonville resident Dorothy Gettle, a founding member of the Nelsonville Restoration Foundation. “We could see common sense and a sincere approach.”

McCabe estimated that Nelsonville School Commons will celebrate its grand opening in the fall.

Caption:  During a Wednesday (April 19, 2017) construction tour of the Nelsonville School Commons project, chalkboards preserved as features inside new apartments is one example of historic preservation at work, said Joe McCabe, Woda Group vice president of development. Contributed by The Woda Group, Inc.

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Download PDF of this article: Nelsonville School Commons.Athens Messenger-April 21, 2017