Will Oakwood Elementary Survive its Storm Damage?

A recent roof collapse could mean the loss of another historic school building

The leaky roof at the old Oakwood Elementary School in North Knoxville was not news to anyone. Kim Trent, executive director of Knox Heritage, says she toured the school several years ago and saw the school system's response to the problem: a garbage can strategically placed to catch incoming rain. But the can itself had been there so long that the floor around it had begun to rot through.

So it was not exactly a surprise that after two days of heavy rain over the Labor Day weekend, portions of the roof and floors of the building at 232 E. Churchwell Ave. collapsed Monday night. County officials were surveying the damage Tuesday to see if any part of the school could be saved.

"We're just now assessing the condition of the building, and after that we'll weigh our options," county purchasing director Hugh Holt says.

Whether or not the school is lost to demolition, Trent sees it as the latest victim of serial neglect by the school system of its own properties: historic buildings like South High and McCallie Elementary, which were closed and then left to fall apart. South High was finally sold but was threatened with demolition by its owner earlier this year. McCallie, on Gill Avenue, was destroyed in a 1995 fire.

Oakwood was shuttered in 1991, but the school system kept the building for nearly two decades, using it most recently as a teachers' supply depot. "Meanwhile the school continued to rot for all these years," Trent says. "There's been a chronic roof leak for years that the school system did not patch. It is just a maddening waste of taxpayers' resources."

Local preservationists had been after the school system for years to sell off the building, which consists of an original section built in 1914—where the collapse happened Monday—and additions made in 1946 and 1951. The school board ultimately agreed last year, turning it over to the county as surplus property. Holt says the county then put out a request for proposals from private developers, and was considering one from Daniel Schuh, who has restored several buildings in the nearby Downtown North district of Central Street. Schuh bid $1, on the understanding that he would absorb the costs of fixing up the historic structure, which the county could not afford to do.

"We were well aware of the condition of the building" at the time the school board turned it over, Holt says. "The county obviously has no resources to devote to the building. That was the whole point of issuing the RFP."

Schuh says he wants to rehab Oakwood for a prospective charter school. After visiting the property Tuesday he said it appeared the collapse was limited to sections that were already going to need to be completely rebuilt. Pending the county's full damage assessment, he says he remains interested. "I think the project, through a public-private partnership, can be a benefit for the whole area," he says. Any sale or transfer of the property would have to be approved by County Commission.

An analysis of the building last year by the East Tennessee Community Design Center found that the school system had stopped maintenance on the 1914 section in 1996: "The roof is in disrepair and allowing water damage to occur from the roof to the lowest floor three levels below." It added, "Windows on the upper two levels are in many cases open to the elements, and as a result allow both weather and pigeons free access to the building." The two later additions, which had housed the supply depot, were in better shape, and were being at least partly maintained. The report estimated that it would cost up to $323,000 to stabilize all 54,000 square feet of the building.

School system spokeswoman Melissa Copelan declined comment on Oakwood, because it is no longer a school board property. But Trent says she hopes the board will take the collapse as a sign that it needs to act quickly on its remaining deteriorating buildings. Those include the old Rule High on Vermont Avenue, which also closed in 1991, and the historic Knoxville High School on East Fifth Avenue, which the school system still uses for some programs.

Of the school system's reluctance to let go of its crumbling properties, Trent says, "It is so wasteful, it boggles my mind."