Saving Building N

Threatened with extinction, a historic schoolhouse finds new life as an art center.


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Children in Waimea on the Big Island used to start first grade in the classroom at one end of the town's 1915-built schoolhouse. Each year the kids migrated one room over, until they reached seventh grade-and the end of the building. Plenty of people around town recall their journey through the 157-foot-long, plantation-style school, the community's first public school. Except for a stint during World War II, when it was used as a military hospital, the building welcomed students from the time it opened in 1916 until the late 1990s, when the Department of Education decided to demolish it to make space for newer classrooms.

Instead of being destroyed, the aging building was moved a half-mile down the road, where it now serves as a new art center run by Hawai'i Preparatory Academy, one of the state's high-end private schools. The classrooms have become galleries, where students and the public alike enjoy the works of Island painters, such as Jean Charlot, Madge Tennent and Herb Kane, as well as art-history luminaries, including 16th-century German engraver Albrecht Durer. Formerly known as Building N, the old school is now called the Isaac's Art Center. It opened in August.

Here, and at right, the old schoolhouse as it looks today.

You might imagine the community heaping kudos upon the DOE for its flexibility in relocating rather than razing Building N. But the DOE didn't have anything to do with the rescue effort. In fact, the government organization didn't realize that Building N hadn't been leveled by bulldozers and trucked to the landfill until after it was out of harm's way.

"Our understanding is it was going to be demolished," says Ray Minami, the DOE's director of facilities and support services. "Then someone from our staff saw the building on the side of the road, relocated, and they said, 'hey, what's going on?'"

What was going on was Building N supporters were making an end run around the DOE, which seemed hell-bent on demolition. In all likelihood, Building N would be moldering in the landfill right now had it not been for the tenacity of one man, Tom Quinlan.

A lumbering, 49-year-old Irishman with a moderate brogue and a generous gift of the blarney, Quinlan is a historic consultant who has made a career out of finding creative ways to save pieces of Hawai'i's architectural past. He routinely encourages the owners of decaying buildings to fix up their places, and he plays matchmaker between derelict buildings and new owners willing to relocate and restore them. As incentives, he might dangle the tax breaks and building-code exemptions that came with listings on the state and national historic registers. Since settling in Waimea in 1988-partway through a budget, round-the-world bicycle tour-Quinlan has rescued dozens of old plantation-era structures and paniolo-style dwellings from neglect or demolition.

Quinlan can often be found in the heart of Waimea in the tiny old wooden jailhouse that serves as the office for the Waimea Preservation Association, of which he's president. The cowboy pokey sits next door to Waimea Elementary and Middle schools, on the grounds where Building N stood for 87 years. When Quinlan heard in 1999 that the DOE was planning to knock down Building N, he set out to find it a new home.

It wasn't hard to rally community support for the cause, but pinning down someone who had the need for the space and the money to restore an old 5,580-square-foot school was a different matter.

"I approached everybody and anybody where I thought it could bloody well go," Quinlan says. In the meantime he contacted the state Historic Preservation Division, the office whose consent is required by any state agency seeking to demolish a structure more than 50 years old. When the historic preservation office realized there was community support for saving Building N, it told the DOE that it would prefer to see the structure moved rather than destroyed.

Moving Building N.

But the DOE had liability concerns. Building N had asbestos floor tiles in the basement and the lead paint all over the place. The DOE estimated it could cost up to $2 million to deal with the hazardous materials to its satisfaction, and it wanted a financial commitment from Building N's champions.

Sticker shock undercut some of Quinlan's support. The one good prospect he finally lined up to take the building backed out when the DOE produced its multimillion-dollar estimate. With nobody willing to make such a huge financial commitment, the DOE told the historic preservation office that relocating the building was no longer an option, and, in the summer of 2001, the preservation office gave the DOE a green light to proceed with the demolition plans.

But Quinlan was already working another angle. He had contacted the O'ahu contractor who had won the demolition bid, Richard Bauske, talking up the merits of both saving a historic place and saving costs on landfill tipping fees. Bauske, already a seasoned house mover, was sympathetic to the cause. And he knew of a loophole: salvage rights.

Building N on the move.

While the demolition contract required him to properly remove and dispose of the asbestos tiles and the loose, flaking bits of lead paint, what he did with the building afterward was really up to him, according to his read of the demolition contract.

"It didn't say that I had to specifically take it to a landfill. It just said that I was responsible for it," Bauske says. "I technically owned the building." Still, Quinlan needed a place to put the building, and time was running out for Bauske to get the building off of state property.

Then Quinlan got lucky. While thumbing through a copy of Hawai'i Preparatory Academy's school magazine, he came across an article about the academy's plans to construct an art center. The design the school was considering was smaller, but otherwise strangely similar to the design of Building N, whose seven classrooms were separated by sliding pocket doors that could be opened to create one expansive hall. Quinlan crossed his fingers and approached the academy's headmaster.

Period details of the 1915-built schoolhouse includes shingle siding, double-hung windows, brackets and the carpenter gothic-style balusters in the lanai railing.

"I said, 'Hey, listen, I've got this great building for you, and it's just like what you need, but it's three times the size and you can have it for free,'" Quinlan recalls. The school was within a few months of going ahead with the new art center's construction, but it scrambled to consider taking Building N-and decided to go for it.

In June 2002, workers removed Building N's roof so it could fit under the wires and stoplights along the road, cut the building into four sections and hoisted them onto a flatbed truck, which slowly crawled down Waimea's main drag to the Hawai'i Preparatory Academy site. The academy then reassembled the building and spent 18 months restoring and adapting it for use as a gallery, spending $750,000 on the work.

Last spring, the Historic Hawai'i Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to encouraging the preservation of Hawai'i's past, gave historic preservation awards to both the Hawai'i Preparatory Academy and to Bauske. (Quinlan sits on Historic Hawai'i Foundation's board.)

Inside the renovated school building, now the Isaacs Art Center.

"We thought this was a great adaptive reuse of a historic structure," says David Scott, the foundation's executive director. "They saved the building from demolition, maintained the historic integrity of the exterior and found a use that will save the building into the future."

In March 2003, the building was placed on the Hawai'i Register of Historic Places, and it is currently a candidate for the National Register of Historic Places. Only the DOE and the Department of Accounting and General Services, which issued the demolition contract on the DOE's behalf, seemed a little sour on the whole deal.

"Ideally, the old building should still be demolished," the Department of Accounting and General Services wrote to Bauske's company after the building was moved. In the end, the state settled for a letter of indemnification from Hawai'i Preparatory Academy, releasing it from any liability for the structure.

"It was a win-win for everybody," Quinlan says.

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