Remembering Chilmark School’s long, expensive history

— File photo by Mae Deary

The news that the Chilmark School requires extensive repairs is the latest chapter in the problematic and tortured building history of the seven-room schoolhouse that welcomed 44 students on December 14, 1999.

Chilmark students had previously attended school in the tiny, cramped Menemsha schoolhouse (now the town’s police department) which had served the town for more than a century. Planning for a new school began in April 1993.

In March 1996, after months of planning, the first school building committee presented two versions of a proposed new two-story school, with the primary differences size and cost: a school capable of accommodating 90 students with an estimated building cost of $1,170,000 million; and a larger version of the same school designed for 120 students that carried a construction cost of $1,690,000.

Longtime selectman Herbert Hancock, a powerful force on the town’s political landscape, was adamant that any new school not be more than 10,000 square feet in size. In September 1996, a divisive town battle over school size resulted in a vote to stop funding for the design process. The entire building committee resigned and a new one was appointed.

The committee next asked school architect Santiago Rosas, a principal in the Boston architectural firm of TLCR Associates Inc., to develop a no-frills school with five classrooms, a multi-media room, and administration offices totalling approximately 9,000 square feet. It also asked Mr. Rosas to develop a design proposed by Chilmark resident Clark Goff — the so-called “H” plan.

In January 1997 selectmen and building committee members gave support to a design concept Mr. Rosas presented for a six-room building — the so-called “I” plan — that he estimated would cost $1.6 million. Unhappy with a narrow corridor, in March, the committee settled on Mr. Goff’s school design concept, which featured a large, central lobby.

In May 1997, after reaching broad agreement on the “H” design, the process took another turn when Chilmark resident Michael VanValkenburgh, a Harvard professor and landscape architect, made an offer, on behalf of an anonymous donor, for an independent architectural review. The result was a new design concept by the Cambridge firm of Thompson and Rose.

After a four-year relationship and working with two different building committees Mr. Rosas and TLCR were out and Mr. Rose was in.

In November 1997, Mr. Rose presented a proposed design of the new Menemsha School. It showed classrooms and a central common room linked by a corridor looking out on a south-facing courtyard.

A campus concept incorporated the existing Chilmark Community Center as the school gym and the Chilmark library as the school library in order to meet state requirements. The total cost of the approximately 12,000-square-foot, seven-room school, expected to serve the three towns was expected to be approximately $3.6 million.

At a special town meeting in December, voters approved design costs over the objections of Mr. Hancock who insisted that expected enrollment did not justify the cost or size. In April 1998, voters approved $2.5 million for construction costs.

Standen Contracting company, the school’s general contractor, completed the building two months into the 1999-2000 school year.

A little more than a month after students rang the inaugural school bell, in January 2000 the school experienced problems with frozen pipes. Just who was responsible quickly became a point of contention between the architect, builder, and plumbing subcontractor.

The school also began to experience problems with loose floor tiles, rotting subfloors, and a wet basement.

In January 2003, a water pipe leading to a classroom sink froze and later burst in a hallway ceiling, sending water flowing through a sprinkler-head opening in the ceiling.

Due to the design of the building, many pipes ran through a well-ventilated attic space or through outside walls. During periods of low temperatures and high winds, sections of pipe were prone to freezing. Solutions included adding insulation, installing grates to allow a flow of warm air to confined spaces, and moving pipes to inside walls.

In June 2004, Chilmark voters approved spending up to $200,000 to pay for needed repairs to the school. A report prepared by A. M. Fogarty & Associates of Hingham estimated needed repairs and renovations would cost $400,506. Getting at the various problems required demolition and or removal of some existing interior walls, ceilings, floors and door frames. The plan also called for the removal of outside concrete paving to allow for the installation of new pipes to alleviate drainage problems.

The seven-room school currently accommodates 57 students and eight teachers.