Saving Building N

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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.

was a win-win for everybody,” Quinlan says.