Crazy Lady Says Historic School Reminds Her of Slavery
From the Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 29, 2001


By Thomas Ott

A court ruling that allows the demolition of Kirk Middle School threatens to end a debate mixing historic preservation and race.

Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Lillian Greene decided yesterday to lift an order prohibiting demolition of the 71-year-old school. Superintendent Elvin Jones said work could begin as early as next week.

Greene ruled in a taxpayers' suit filed by six East Cleveland residents, the Cleveland Restoration Society and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The suit said the city did not follow proper procedures in issuing a demolition permit.

Julie Langan of the restoration society said the group now wants a clarification from the court because Greene dissolved a temporary restraining order without addressing the request for a permanent order.

Langan also disagreed with the judge that City Council's failure to block the demolition permit signaled consent.

School board member Emma Whatley has charged that white outsiders, including some who abandoned East Cleveland, are trying to force children in the predominantly black city to settle for a hand-me-down school.

Five of the six residents who filed the suit are black, but Whatley dismissed them as uninformed. She said the school was a fire hazard and had large amounts of exposed asbestos.

Kirk is an example of Georgian Revival architecture. Councilwoman Mildred Brewer said recently that Kirk's front columns reminded her of Southern plantations and, to her, symbolized slavery.

Lead plaintiff Roy Harley is white, but he is no outsider, having lived in East Cleveland for 52 years. The retired president of the Higley Construction Co. adamantly argues that the school is a sound and priceless asset.

"My interests are not simply in the aesthetics of the building, but the maintenance and continued operation of an outstanding building and the most outstanding landmark in the city of East Cleveland," he said.

Incoming Councilwoman Gladys Walcott, who is black, said the school has sentimental value for both whites and blacks.

"You take away a lot of the integrity of the city when you try to remove everything that represents the past," she said.

In March, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the school on its list of America's most endangered historic places. Kirk is not on the better-known National Register of Historic Places, but even if it were, that would not prevent demolition.

A new middle school is part of a $106 million district building and renovation project. The state is paying 90 percent of the project cost.

A 1997 architect's study estimated the price of renovating Kirk at nearly $12.7 million, more than two-thirds the $18 million cost of new construction.

At the time, the state mandated new construction if expenses crossed the two-thirds threshold, but it later permitted exceptions.

Jeff Tuckerman, a project administrator for the Ohio School Facilities Commission, testified that the state would not agree to a change of plans after the expenditure of more than $1 million in design fees.

He acknowledged outside the courtroom that the commission had the final say.

City and school lawyers said ballot wording used when voters approved a tax increase for the building program specifically mentioned a new middle school.

Officials closed Kirk in August, citing safety and health concerns that critics said were exaggerated. The 850 seventh- and eighth-graders are attending classes at three other sites.

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