Bel Air schoolhouse at center of debate

School system, preservationists divided over site


The needs of an elementary school are clashing with the town's desire to renovate a century-old building in downtown Bel Air.

Bel Air Elementary School needs more land for a playground, parking lot and a bus loop, and it is eyeing about 2 acres available next door on Gordon Street. But a two-story brick schoolhouse, vacant since December when school board headquarters moved, stands in the way. The county's schools superintendent has recommended razing it.

"This is a battle of utilitarian versus history," said John Sauers, a Berkley resident who started first grade at Bel Air Academy and Graded School in 1939. "Bel Air has already lost a lot. We can't let our structures get away from us."

At the school board meeting tomorrow, town administrators and preservationists who want to save the building will try to persuade school officials who need land, not an old building with peeling paint and rotting wood.

"The building is on school property, and the school system has a definite need for that property," said Donald R. Morrison, the school system's director of public information. "We desperately need land to expand our educational space."

The town envisions renovation of the building, possibly into senior apartments.

"It has clerestory windows, high ceilings, fireplaces and a beautiful staircase," said Carol L. Deibel, Bel Air's director of planning and community development. "You can't replicate that."

Built in 1884, the school drew students from many of Harford's prominent families through the early 1950s, when it became the system's administrative headquarters.

"Virtually everyone in Harford County went to that school in its era," said Maryanna Skowronski, administrator of the Historical Society of Harford County. "It has an amazing list of alumni."

Sauers remembers shooting marbles on the playground, dedicated "matriarchal" teachers, and the little store and doctor's office just across the street.

School administrators long ago outgrew the old academy building and finally moved into new offices on Hickory Street this year. Town engineers have rated the building as salvageable, officials said.

"Our engineers have checked and found the building in good shape and structurally sound," Deibel said.

Bel Air officials also said they have land to swap, but are keeping mum on where it is. They have offered engineering services to the school system.

In December, Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas recommended demolition but gave the town time to explore options. At tomorrow's meeting, the board will present its engineering evaluation of the building and is expected to vote on the superintendent's recommendation.

The Historical Society has been trying to rally support for its cause.

"Our hope is to preserve this building and retain the original flavor of this town," Skowronski said. "Original buildings, trees and neighborhoods are part of the charm of small-town America. If it is razed, it will be one more part of old Bel Air gone."

Robert Mercado, Harford's historic preservation planner, expects members of the county Historic Preservation Commission to also lend their support.

"This is definitely a structure worth fighting for," Mercado said. "It was designed by notable architects. It is rough right now but very usable."

Hampstead in Carroll County successfully renovated a similarly aged school into senior living and now has a viable downtown building with a waiting list of tenants.

"We had an old school in the heart of downtown falling into disrepair," said Hampstead Mayor Haven N. Shoemaker Jr. "It took a long time, but we found a developer willing to put it into productive use. We have preserved a building and provided much-needed affordable senior housing."

Sallee Kunkel Filkins, Bel Air's economic development administrator, said restoring the academy building could yield similar benefits. "This structure is a key element in the stabilization and revitalization of the town of Bel Air and its efforts to call a halt to the erosion of the town's historic character," she said.

The Harford preservation commission is also focusing on two other properties. The panel is urging a developer to incorporate a 1791 manor house into a senior housing complex planned on Moores Mill Road and is seeking grant money to purchase Tudor Hall, the childhood home of John Wilkes Booth.

"We should save the manor house and have the building incorporated into the site plan," Mercado said. "We are trying to figure out grant sources for Tudor Hall. It is the only way to keep it."

That home's greater significance lies not in its connection to John Wilkes Booth, but to the acting accomplishments of his brother and father, who were renowned Shakespearean actors. Preservationists envision it as a theater museum.

"As these historic buildings come down, we are replacing them with glass and block or worse," said Skowronski. "These decisions should not be made lightly. I know we can't save them all, but we have to make the effort."

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