Rebuilding history

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Group transforming Historic Hernando School into community center

By Chris Van Ormer

The group transforming the Historic Hernando School to a community center is pushing the momentum in spite of evaporating funds.

Hernando Heritage Council got the Citrus County Board of County Commissioners to agree last month to work 

on the next phase of renovation of the 1940s school building rather than “mothballing” it.

“The grants have dried up now, which is why we were going to put the building into reserved status,” said Charlie Gatto, director, Facilities Management Division of the county’s Public Works Department. “Then the Heritage Council came to us with the suggestion for a plan to use the money we were going to mothball the building with added to their money and actually get the project moving again. We thought it was a great idea.”

The county agreed to put $10,000 toward the next project on the list: lead abatement, taking the lead paint off the exterior. In return, the heritage council will match $20,000. 

Had the county mothballed the school, windows would have been boarded up with plywood and painted. More air-conditioning units would have been installed to keep the temperature less conducive to mold and mildew. The fire alarm and sprinkler system would have been kept active.

The county’s $10,000 was money already budgeted for the school building to stop it from getting in worse condition, just standing still. But with the heritage council bringing the sum up to $30,000, the project can make some headway.

“The $10,000 from the county — they’ll have something to show for it,” said John Grannan, president of the Citrus County Historical Society. “And once you mothball a building, it takes money to unmothball it.”

Stops and starts are no strangers to the historic building. Now listed on the National Register of National Historic Places, the school’s construction started in the 1940s as a project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal agency set up during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to employ millions of unskilled workers to carry out public works projects.

“If you were going to get paid with WPA money, you were going to learn on the job,” said Douglas Naylor, chairman of the Hernando Heritage Council. “Roosevelt was using this as a vo-tech to teach the workers how to do all this. Skilled guys were in charge to train the young guys. Believe it or not, that’s what put all this together — unskilled labor.” 

The ceiling of the auditorium is going to be left with open beams to show the structure, not only because it is attractive, but it also shows the on-the-job training of putting together the framework on the site. However, historic events stalled progress.

“World War II slowed it down,” Grannan. “When World War II started, all that labor left and WPA projects died on the vine. Eventually, I think, the school board took on responsibility to complete this.”

Since 1999, the heritage council gradually has restored the building through it own fundraising and grants. Much work has been accomplished and completion is a realistic concept.

The building’s new electrical system is all there now, and its plumbing has almost reached 100 percent, with an active sprinkler system in both the ceilings and under the floors in case of fire and an active fire alarm panel.

Completing the bathrooms before painting the exterior has been questioned. However, each phase of renovation has depended on available grant funding, which may account for the priorities. And another factor is that new plumbing was needed while installing the fire sprinklers. So renovating the bathrooms at the same time made financial sense.

“When you have a large grant, it’s better to go ahead and do that for the safety of the building itself,” Naylor said.

The school boasts a good-sized auditorium with a proscenium-arch stage, which has been renovated to the point where it just needs painting. Naylor and Grannan said Jack Rife of Caldwell Construction in Inverness has contributed a lot of work. Architect plans for the total renovation have been drawn. 

“That’s already been paid for,” Grannan said. “It’s important for people to know what’s been done to the building because the outside looks so bad.”

The next step, the $30,000 project already funded, is the lead abatement on the building’s exterior. Completion of that project will give a visual boost to the community. The lead-based paint will be removed and the building will be repainted. Then the bricks will get a coat of sealer to sharpen up the overall appearance.

“Once people see how nice it looks on the outside, this will generate more interest in the building,” Grannan said. “Eventually, we hope to build the avenues to get funding so we can complete the project.”

But it doesn’t end there for Naylor.

“Then I’ll need another $30,000 ASAP so that we can continue with the next project,” Naylor said. “We’re looking for more members. Anyone who wants to donate anything to us, labor-wise or monetary, we would greatly appreciate it. And they can contact me at 352-302-5565.”

The heritage council has a creative cultural vision for the building. Naylor said the council foresees talent shows, plays and concerts in the auditorium.

“We want to have a diner,” Naylor said. “Hopefully we’ll have a museum and use it for a community center. People could come in here and play cards during the day and have their club meetings so it would be a benefit to the community.” 

Naylor would like to see involvement from all of Hernando’s neighborhoods. 

“We would love to have participation out of Citrus Hills and Terra Vista,” Naylor said. “We have a lot of retired talent. We would like that retired talent to help us so we could put on something that may never have been done before. We could draw on their experience and knowledge to help us with what we want to do here. That talent is still there, they just need a place to express it and we want to help make that blossom here with their knowledge.” 

Chronicle reporter Chris Van Ormer can be reached at cvanormer@chronicleonline.com or 352-564-2916.