Reading demolition on hold; Designer, others hope to save historic building in Flat Rock
FLAT ROCK – The Reading Building may not be demolished after all.
In late November, the Flat Rock school board unanimously voted to tear down the 112-year-old former school, located off Gibraltar Road on the school system’s property. The board said the vacant building does not meet the current needs of the school district.
Earlier report:Reading School in Flat Rock slated for demolition
Some demolition work has already been done by Nova Environmental and Homrich.
Last week, after presentations by Reading Building supporters, the Flat Rock school board voted 5-2 in favoring of pausing demolition for 120 days, until another board meeting on May 8.
“The board vote to postpone demolition was made because a majority of the board of education is interested in the plan that was presented to restore the building,” Andrew Brodie, Flat Rock superintendent, said. “On May 8, the board may revert back to the original plan for demolition or, if the plan presented at that time has merit, financial backing and fits the needs of the school district, the board of education may allow the nonprofit organization that is being created to proceed.”
Speaking at last week’s board meeting were Bruce Chapin, president of the Flat Rock Historical Society, and Jennifer Schoenberger of Atlanta, Georgia, owner of Jennifer Schoenberger Design. She has a plan to renovate the Reading Building.
Schoenberger grew up in Flat Rock and moved to Georgia in 1998. She returns frequently to Flat Rock. Her firm does mostly residential projects, but she was a designer on a historical rehabilitation project in Detroit’s Boston Edison neighborhood.
“I was one of the designers involved in the Detroit Junior Show House that took place at Hill Harper’s residence,” Schoenberger said.
Schoenberger wants to create several spaces in the Reading Building, including a children’s museum similar to the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum.
“She works all over Georgia,” Chapin said. “Cindy Hehl (her mother) worked in the building and is one of the founding members of the Flat Rock Historical Society. Jennifer is trying to turn it into something like they have in Ann Arbor, the Hands-On Museum. She is trying to do that here, plus some history displays and make it a self-sufficient building. She spent a half-hour talking to the school board at the podium.”
In the proposed plan, Schoenberger would design the building with assistance from a historical rehabilitation company. Chapin also has a construction background.
“He worked in construction his whole life. He’ll overlook the renovation road map,” Schoenberger said.
It’s unknown when work could begin.
“We don’t know yet. Right now, we’re gathering our facts,” Schoenberger said.
She estimates securing the building and renovation would run about $2 million. She and others hope to hold fundraisers and obtain local, state and federal funding.
“We’re applying for tons of grants for historic preservation and rehabilitation. There are a ton of programs out there. There are a couple of healthy local foundations we’re going to call. We’re going to call the Ford Foundation and Meijer Foundation to see if they’ll commit to matching funds,” Schoenberger said.
She thinks the building could fill several needs.
“We want to fill the biggest needs and wishes of the community. (It could house) Downtown Development Authority, Veterans Affairs. I personally love the idea of an Alumni Association, history of Flat Rock, athletics,” Schoenberger said. “Rep. Jamie Thompson, R-Brownstown Township, said Downriver could really use a STEM center. The state has money and funding for that. The terrace level (basement) has windows and doors all around. We could make that the Alumni Association and rent it for class reunions, homecomings, all kinds of events.”
After the board’s initial vote to demolish the building, asbestos abatement and some demolition was done.
“They took the plaques down on the front and side. We’ve got them and can put them back,” Chapin said. “They did destructive abatement. They tore out the stairwell. They said they couldn’t strip the asbestos. Now, you need a ladder to get to the second floor.”
But the demolition won’t affect the new plans.
“With the exception of the stairway, it’s pretty much the way it was. We’ll have to totally renovate the inside. The building is all steel-reinforced concrete. The walls on the interior are 10-inches thick and concrete. Those they can’t tear down and we don’t want them to,” Chapin said.
Offices that were installed more recently also would need to be removed.
“I toured the building. I didn’t think it was in that bad of shape. I was pretty impressed. It has original hardwood floors that were covered in tiles. The floors are beautiful. It’s such a big, wide open, light, bright space after we take down all those makeshift interior walls,” Schoenberger said.
The day after the vote, Chapin, Schoenberger and Leslie Harkai, curator of historical collections for the Flat Rock Historical Society, got right to work.
“We are on it right now,” Chapin said. “We just spent two hours in the basement of the Munger Store and Museum, planning and making phone calls. We’re going to hit the ground running.”
Reading School was built in 1911 to replace a 1906 school building that burned down.
The 1906 building contained much wood and burned quickly, Chapin said. So the new school, Reading, was constructed mostly of concrete and was built on the ruins of the first structure.
The two-story brick building was named after Gertrude Reading, the first principal at the school. It was last used as a school in 1970. The building had been owned by the city of Flat Rock until two years ago, when it was purchased by the Flat Rock schools. Both the city and the school district used the facility for storage and offices.
Schoenberger said the community is supportive of saving the historic structure.
“The meeting was packed. (People) are in favor of saving the building. I’ve had an outpouring of support from people all over the country and all kinds of local tradesmen and craftspeople. We’ve gotten so many offers from people to help renovate the building,” Schoenberger said. “It could be a beautiful grassroots community project. This building can be such a symbol of community.”
This article originally appeared on The Monroe News: Designer, others hope to save historic Reading building in Flat Rock