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Many twists and turns for East plans in last three years

Pittsburgh Tribune ReviewBy Peggy Conrad,
Staff Writer
Woodland Progress
Wednesday, August 22, 2007

By the end of this month or early in September, East Junior High School in Turtle Creek could be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“It’s an excellent designation, an excellent honor,” says Ron Yochum, chief information officer of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.

He hired a specialist in the field, Laura Ricketts, to research and document the history of the building and submit the proposal, which is “a very, very complicated process,” according to Yochum.

In March, the commission voted unanimously to nominate the structure to the National Register. The National Park Service requested some additional details, which Ricketts submitted with the nomination on July 16.

“We’re hopeful the National Park Service will agree with us, as well as with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission,” Yochum says.
A decision could be made in the next couple of weeks, as the approval process takes about 45 days to complete. The designation would provide protection for the structure if any federally funded project were threatening the building.

The school board voted to begin the process of closing East earlier this year and is scheduled to make a final decision in October. Generations of area residents have attended the school, and many are anxious to see what will become of it.

The first cornerstone for the building was laid in 1917. The school opened in 1918 and the first class graduated in 1919.

In 1939, an addition to house the gym and additional classrooms was built by the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency that provided jobs during the Great Depression. A plaque stating the details of the addition is housed, but not currently mounted, at the school.

Originally Union High, the institution was the first joint high school in Pennsylvania, combining Turtle Creek, Wilmerding and East Pittsburgh high schools, according to Bob Mock, head of Committee to Save Turtle Creek High School.

The building became Turtle Creek High, then East Junior High after the merger that formed Woodland Hills School District.

“To remove such a wonderful landmark in the community would be tragic,” says Yochum. “I think it’s an asset for the community that should be preserved.”

If it achieves historic status and a project threatens the building, the case would go into an automatic review process, he says. If the district were to renovate the building, it would not be a problem, unless the renovation would affect the facade.

“I’m sure the community would not be happy with that.” Yochum, whose agency has been offering assistance to Committee to Save Turtle Creek High School, could not be more correct in that assessment.

About two and a half years ago, the group of Turtle Creek residents came together to protest the district’s plans to demolish the building and construct a new junior high school on the same spot.

“Had they done that, knowing what we know now, what a big mistake they would have made,” says Mock, who rallied his neighbors to join the cause.

A national preservationist who attended a town meeting in Turtle Creek in 2005 in support of preserving the school said the structure was a “slam dunk” for the National Register.

“It sailed right through at the state level,” says Mock, a 1968 alumnus of the high school. “This is a positive for our community and a positive for the school district.”

The past few years have been a roller-coaster ride for anyone invested in the future of East. A brief outline follows:

  • August 2004 — HHSDR Architects presented preliminary plans for renovation and for new construction. The architects did three to four variations on plans for a new building in the months that followed.
  • January 2005 — Hundreds of residents turned out for a town meeting held by the board to voice their opinions on proposed renovation plans for several district buildings. Options for East included the possibility of relocating the school.
  • April 2005 — Survey companies were authorized to begin surveying the property at East in preparation for renovation or reconstruction.
  • November 2005 — The school board voted in favor of borrowing approximately $30 million to fund the proposed building of a new East Junior High and renovations of the Wolvarena and high school soccer stadium. The district scheduled groundbreaking for the new school building in the summer of 2006.
  • November 2005 — A town meeting organized by Commit-tee to Save Turtle Creek High School overflowed with outraged residents who wanted the building to be preserved.
  • December 2005 — The board directed HHSDR to de-velop further renovation plans following objections by residents to the planned demolition and rebuilding of the school. Construction costs increased to estimates of $20,641,170 for renovation and $20,329,874 for new construction.
  • Initial plans called for putting an addition on the front of the building, but the committee requested the facade not be altered. The administration said keeping the exact shell of a renovated building would increase the cost.
  • February 2006 — The board decided to not vote on whether to rebuild or renovate the school until it received more public input on the issue. The district sought residents from all its communities to serve on an ad hoc committee to study the proposed renovation / construction plans.
  • May 2006 — After meeting for two months, the committee recommended the district create detailed and comparable design plans, one each for a renovated and new structure, and that the board commit to the least expensive option. Be-cause of a lack of support among members, the board voted to not follow the recommendation and to no longer pursue constructing a new building, but to have renovation plans developed in more detail.
  • June 2006 — HHSDR presented an update on work needed immediately at East and asked for direction. Cost of the urgent “A-list” items was $500,000 to $750,000.
  • A “B-list” of needed but not urgent items would have cost about $5 million. Following discussion, it was clear the board would not reach a consensus, so the architects were asked to return at a meeting on June 28.
  • There was no discussion regarding renovation at that meeting because the board had not had adequate time to meet with the architects and make a decision.
  • October 2006 — The superintendent announced the district would consider closing East and two other schools due to declining enrollment.
  • Superintendent Roslynne Wilson recommended, as part of the Next Quarter Century Plan, closing Rankin Intermediate, Shaffer Primary and East, as they had the biggest enrollment declines. The proposal was based, in part, on state Act 1, which limits how much districts can hike taxes. The closing of East would save more than $800,000 a year.
  • December 2006 — Parents voiced concerns at a public hearing on the plan to consolidate schools. Several board members were concerned that the proposal would have a negative impact.
  • January 2007 — All who spoke at a second public hearing were opposed to the consolidation plan. At its next meeting, the board listened to residents and voted down the superintendent’s plan as well as a counterproposal to close East in 2008.
  • March 2007 — The board voted to begin the process of closing East and consolidating all seventh- and eighth-graders at West Junior High in 2008-09.
  • The Swissvale school, to be renamed Woodland Hills Mid-dle School, would have to be renovated at a cost about $5 million and would have about 740 students in the first year.
  • July 2007 — The board held a public hearing on the possible closing of East. Res-idents were opposed to closing the building without a definite plan in place on its future use.

Several options were discussed, including moving ad-ministration offices to the school, turning the building into a creative and performing arts high school for the district and turning it into a charter high school.

Wilson said the process to close the school will include formation of an ad hoc committee that will be asked to report to the board on Oct. 3. The board expects to vote to close the school on Oct. 10.

“It’s been a long saga with a lot of twists and turns,” says Mock, who believes East deserves historic designation for many reasons. The white brick structure was built in the neo-classical style as part of a “City Beautiful” campaign designed to uplift communities in the early 1900s, he says.

“There’s a lot of history here.”

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633