CARLISLE - The fate of the town's first two-story schoolhouse is in limbo after its renter and the School Department were unable to reach a new lease agreement for the 99-year-old building.
School officials say the Highland Building, which has been leased by the nonprofit group Emerson Umbrella and used by artists as studio space for the past 13 years, is not viable as a school building and should either be demolished or moved from the Carlisle School campus. The School Committee asked the Board of Selectmen to appoint a committee to offer options for the town before a final decision is made.
"We felt this is an issue that goes beyond the School Committee," said committee member Michael Fitzgerald. "It's a revered building. We as a community face a big decision about what to do with a rapidly deteriorating building that is not in the school's future."
Selectmen agreed to establish the committee, and the board is expected to appoint members at its meeting Tuesday night.
Selectmen chairman Timothy Hult said the board will ask the committee to report back prior to Town Meeting so an article can be placed before voters in the spring. The committee will look at the cost of preserving the building, and the viability and cost of moving the building, he said.
"There are not many historically significant buildings in town, and many feel it would be a shame to lose it," Hult said.
Fitzgerald said the future of the Highland Building comes up every five to 10 years, but the issue has come to a head this year. He said the School Department recently completed a master plan for the Carlisle School campus, and the School Committee decided the building doesn't fit into those plans.
Fitzgerald said the two-story wood structure has no sprinkler system, no elevator, and needs significant repairs. He said the building would not be eligible for state funds because it is not handicapped-accessible.
"There is no educational value," he said. "We can't use it for an educational facility. It has more going against it than it has going for it."
Fitzgerald said the committee has considered demolishing the building so it can use the land for school-related purposes such as parking or a new playground. At the same time, the School Department was unable to reach a new lease agreement with Emerson Umbrella, which has rented the building since 1994.
The 10 artists who rent studios there are now looking for new space, said Carrie Flood, Emerson Umbrella's managing director.
The School Department had wanted Emerson Umbrella, a Concord-based cultural organization that provides studio and performance space and offers classes, to pick up the tab for repairs. But the group, which had been paying $1 a year in rent and was responsible for the building's maintenance, says those repairs are beyond its means.
Flood said the organization has done basic upkeep but cannot afford the major repairs needed. She said the chimney is leaning and the front porch must be replaced. She does not have a cost estimate, but said she knows it's too much for Emerson Umbrella to absorb.
She said she is disappointed because the building's large windows with ample lighting are perfect for the artists. "We just know it's prohibitively expensive," she said, adding that the artists will be out by Jan. 31, if not the end of December.
Phyllis Hughes, who has rented space in the Highland Building for 13 years, said she hopes the town preserves the building. "It's a lovely old building, and we don't have many antique buildings in town," she said. "The bones, the structure, of the building are rock solid. There are a great many people horrified at the thought of tearing it down."
Selectman Douglas Stevenson, who attended fifth grade in the Highland Building, said he hopes it doesn't come to that. He said his preference is for the town to preserve the building for some use. One idea, he said, is to move the school's administrative offices there.
But whatever happens, Stevenson said, the town must make a decision quickly.
He said fire officials have raised concerns about safety because the building is made of wood and is located close to other school buildings.
"Ultimately, we can't just board it up and mothball it and wait for it to fall down," Stevenson said. "I'd like us to explore all other options."
Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.