BEHRE COLUMN: Behind old school's facade, nothing but challenges

robert behre/staff James B. Simons Elementary School, as seen from the corner of King and Moultrie streets. Buy this photo

The expansive brick facade is all that's remaining of James B. Simons Elementary School and it looks like a war ruin.

In fact, it's been the subject of great care and expense.

It's among several schools the Charleston County School District is renovating in part because of their vulnerability to earthquakes.

No question it would have been easier to tear down the facade along with the rest of the school to bring it up to code.

But even though the school is outside the city's Old and Historic District, the 1919 building has served as a neighborhood landmark for almost a century — and it also has a special place in the city's history as its first public school to be racially integrated (in 1963). It's important to save.

That said, preservationists have qualms over the extent of the demolition here.

Robert Gurley of the Charleston Preservation Society says he's glad to see the Moultrie Street facade saved and its original large window openings put back, “but we're disappointed they weren't able to rehabilitate the existing historic school.”

But Bill Lewis, the district's chief operating officer, says the school's geometry didn't allow modern classrooms to fit within its walls and window openings — unlike the oldest section of Buist Academy, the oldest part of which is being preserved and renovated.

While some might disagree, it's also important to note the lengths to which the district is going to save what it is saving.

“This is an extremely unsafe set of circumstances,” Lewis says of the three remaining three-story walls.

Lewis jokes that it takes “a mad scientist” to secure these walls — and augment their foundation. That job fell to Mark Dillon, a structural engineer with ADC, as overseen by project manager Bob Faust of Cumming. They designed a steel frame to support the facade until framing for the new school is built behind it.

The frame anchors into the facade where the original floors did, so it replicates the familiar stress points. Wood blocking on either end of the bolts also pampers the bricks.

Without the frame, the facade would be vulnerable to a 5 mph wind, Dillon says.

But before that skeleton can go up, the facade needed a brand new foundation. Its original one was little more than a concrete slab one foot thick and three feet wide.

So M.B. Kahn's construction crews are digging underneath, bit by bit, to install new pilings and a 3-foot-tall grade beam. The soil is poor, and a pump removes groundwater as needed. Lewis says that's one reason the work is taking so long, though he's still optimistic about the fall 2013 completion date.

Steel piles, instead of concrete, were used next to the facade to minimize vibration. In places, the mortar has deteriorated and turned into sand, further weakening things.

“It gives you a feel for how excruciating this is,” Lewis says. “It's taken us eight months to get this facade stabilized.”

Faust, the project manager, says this is the most difficult project he has worked on in his 40 years in the business.

The school's redesign, being done by Thomas Denzinger Architects, calls for classrooms to be nestled near Moultrie and the more energy-intensive parts, such as the cafeteria, occupying a new building to the south. The main entrance will shift to King Street, though the Moultrie Street facade still will serve as a secondary entrance.

Once the school is done, the remaining facade will be nothing more than a thick veneer on a new building.

But the veneer still will have a story, not just about its early 20th century origins and Civil Rights era history, but also about how much was done recently to save it.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.

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