School boards seem to be, as a general rule, anti-preservationists. Given the choice between renovation and addition or demolition and new construction, they almost always choose the latter. When such sweeping changes are made, they often pass virtually unnoticed. But not always.
There are times when a building has been so special, and so much a part of a community, that any threat to the facility – no matter how decrepit and abandoned – causes public outcry.
This was the case in Marshall, when in 2006 the “powers that be” at the County Commission announced plans to tear down the long-abused Marshall High School building on Blanahassett Island in the city’s downtown. Built in 1925, the school was more than just a building: It was a storehouse of generations of community memories. It was a special place—a place worth saving.
After all, how many people have memories of going to class in the middle of a river?
Public meetings, protests and petitions soon followed the announcement, and – to their credit – the board decided to look into alternative uses for the structure. Just a few days before the wrecking ball was was set to arrive, the building and surrounding land was purchased by Blanahassett, LLC, a team made up of Lark Books founder Rob Pulleyn and arts patron Jim Woodruff.
Their plan for the building was simple: Turn the school into an arts center for Madison County, with the rest of the 10-acre island remaining as public space. The building itself would be converted to artist studios, with the auditorium, stage and balcony being completely refurbished. Likewise, a design charette organized by the architecture department at North Carolina State University is planning how best to use the land.
But isn’t this level of investment in such a weathered structure – all for artist’s studios – a little risky in these days of $500,000 condos in nearby Asheville?
Maybe, but risk isn’t exactly a new thing to Rob Pulleyn. He invested in buildings in downtown Asheville long before the current downtown renaissance, and his instincts have since proven solid. Even though he’s since moved on to a second career as a ceramicist, old habits die hard. So, like Pulleyn himself, the old Marshall High School building would have a second career in the arts.
Plans were made, regulatory hoops were jumped through, contractors were hired and the work has progressed pretty much on schedule. And what work it is! Restored windows flood light upon restored floors, walls and fixtures. New plumbing, lighting, heating and sprinkler systems have replaced equipment that, in some cases, hadn’t been updated since the building’s construction. And since the building’s basement is prone to flooding (it is in the middle of the French Broad, after all), the developers also installed a new system of water pumps.
Sure, it sounds great, but what’s the cost? Surprisingly, the rent for the 28 studio spaces range from $290 a month for a half classroom to $670 to a full one, putting the Marshall High Studios on par with spaces in Asheville’s River District.
Although heavily updated, the building still retains a spirit that will be familiar to the many who spent their teenage years there. In fact, Pulleyn says he’s been on the lookout for old graffiti worth preserving. His favorite? “Thank God for turnip greens and good directions.”
True to form, Pulleyn has made it clear to the graduates of Marshall High that he honors and respects the school’s past, and that its past will not be forgotten. He was a bit taken aback however, when a woman approached him at a gathering and quietly said, “I’ve got your urinals.”
But will this big risk — converting an old, often flooded building into the center of Marshall’s yet-to-happen arts explosion — prove a worthy gamble? Will it bring a fresh crop of artistic talent to this tiny community? Once again, Pulleyn seems to be far ahead of the development curve. Most of the building’s new tenants, who move in Sept. 1, are new to the area.
[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based painter and writer.]
Tours of Marshall High Studios can be arranged by calling at 649-0177. For more info about the building and studio spaces, visit www.marshallhighstudio.com