Walls may come tumbling down

By Tina Richards

The proposed demolition of an historic abandoned schoolhouse that sits amid the campus of Villa Park Elementary is gaining traction, with the Orange Unified School Board agreeing to vote on it during its March meeting.

The two adjoining buildings, one built in 1919, the other in 1926, have not been used since the 1970s, when they were declared structurally unsafe.  A chain link fence was installed around the buildings to separate them from the students.  

The school district has considered tearing down the buildings at least twice in the last 20 years, but tabled the idea when a group of Villa Park residents convinced the school board to let them raise money to restore and preserve the structures.  The Villa Park Elementary School Restoration Corporation was created to fundraise and take on the effort to preserve the schoolhouse.  It was estimated that some $3.5 million was needed to repair the structure – the oldest in the city of Villa Park – and the restoration advocates fell short.  They did, however, get the building placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.

Time’s running out
Good intentions have not been enough to prevent the continual decline of the aging and untended historic place.   Parents of VPE students want it removed – this time for real.  A number of them attended the Feb. 22 school board meeting to voice their concerns about earthquake safety, vermin, and bees that have taken up residence. The size and location of the structure itself overwhelms the campus, and the land it sits on could be used to benefit students.

 “This building was considered unsafe 27 years ago,” Eric Malick told the board. “I’m in shock when I see the condition.  Out of sight, out of mind isn’t going to cut it anymore.”

Jill Kuli was a member of the restoration corporation, but has since realized the building cannot be saved.  “I’m embarrassed that we couldn’t raise the money,” she said.  “I even bought a lottery ticket, hoping that would help.  But we need to gather the history of the building while it is still there.  Take pictures, gather oral histories, keep the school bell.”

Norman McGrane attended VPE from 1974-81.  “The building is in the way,” he said. “It doesn’t even provide good shade.  It’s like hanging on to old junk in your garage.  You should throw it away, but you don’t.” 

While no one has determined what the cost of restoration would be in today’s dollars, Assistant Superintendent Joe Sorrera estimates demolition to be $200 to $250 thousand.

Teri Elmendorf, another restoration corporation original, asked the board to give her 30 more days to figure out a way to save the buildings and make them safer for students in the meantime.

While the board didn’t officially grant her a 30-day reprieve, she’s getting a few weeks.  The next board meeting is March 9.  Trustees are expected to approve the demolition at that time.  The building would be torn down over the summer while school is not in session. The district plans to keep the bell.