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Is history worth the cost of its preservation?

How much is a memory worth?

Specifically, how much are the memories embodied by an old brick schoolhouse worth to a community divided over whether to demolish it or save it? Millions?

Because that’s what it could cost to save the old Lordsburg High School, a building both beloved and bemoaned, which is at the center of a debate over the city’s future and preservation of its past.

A 10-year effort by a group of dedicated citizens to save the old Lordsburg High School paid off when the state’s historic preservation body added the building to the state’s historic register in 2013 and, last week, recommended it be registered nationally as well.

But that honor won’t stop its demolition if the local school district – strapped for cash and saddled with a hefty insurance premium on the old structure – decides once and for all to tear it down.

Born and raised in Lordsburg, Edmund Saucedo went to junior high in the old school and has spearheaded the campaign to save the building, one of the few recognized historic structures remaining in Lordsburg. Just six other city properties have been listed in the state register, two of them in the Shakespeare ghosttown.

Other historically valuable properties were torn down in the 1960s, Saucedo told me, “when everything old was considered old.”

Students pose for a photo in front of Lordsburg High School during the 1930s

Students pose for a photo in front of Lordsburg High School during the 1930s. (Courtesy of Hidalgo County Heritage Society)

Now what’s old is new again: A spokesman for the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division points to how the old Albuquerque High School became the Lofts at Albuquerque High, anchoring Downtown redevelopment, and how a refurbished Eklund Hotel became the pride of Clayton.

A remade Lordsburg high school could be a point of “civic pride,” Saucedo said, “and a tourist attraction.”

Built in the midst of a mining boom in 1916, the same year Lordsburg incorporated, it was the city’s first high school, a symbol of the community’s aspirations. World War I was raging in Europe and would draw in the United States the next year, stoking demand for the metals mined in southwest New Mexico. Lordsburg was booming.

A small city with a big vision for itself needed a place to educate its future leaders.

The original red brick school house was designed in the Mission-revival style by architect J.O. Michaud. The building was expanded in 1927 by celebrated El Paso architect Henry C. Trost with new classroom wings and a classy two-story auditorium, according to the application to the National Register of Historic Places. The sidewalks that frame it were built by the Works Progress Administration in 1938.

It served as a high school until 1953, then as a junior high until 1971.

Then it was abandoned.

Lordsburg High School in 1916

An image of the school from 1916. (Courtesy of Hidalgo County Heritage Society)

Today pink-painted plywood blocks the windows and entrance to the building, where countless class photos were taken in black and white. “You can see blue sky from the auditorium,” where a hole in the roof has led to water damage inside, according to Superintendent Randy Piper.

The building is caught between some residents’ dreams for its future and its steward’s current reality.

Piper makes no bones about his desire to see the building demolished. Insurance alone costs the school district $12,500 annually.

Lordsburg is building a new high school, this time downsized: The population of high-schoolers has dropped 46 percent in seven years to 128 students, a decline that reflects the city’s shrinking population. A high school built in 1951 will be demolished and a new, smaller building will go up in its place. In the meantime, high school students are using classrooms in the elementary school.

The number of residents has fallen 20 percent to 2,665 from more than 3,300 in 2000, according to Census figures. More than a quarter of residents live below the poverty line. (Nearly 400 citizens and former students signed a petition in support of saving the old high school.)

The school district and state will spend $17 million to build the new, smaller high school and complete repairs to other schools, Piper said. It has no money to repair the old Lordsburg High School – which he says would have to be gutted and abated for asbestos and lead paint.

As part of its master plan, the school board voted in 2008 and again in 2013 to have the building demolished. Now that the school is listed on the state historic register, and may be listed nationally, the school board will have to exhaust alternatives for the building and work with the state Historic Preservation Division before it can take action.

Unless, of course, a private party steps in to take on the project – and take advantage of the federal tax credits that will become available if the building is added to the national register. So far no one has expressed interest, Piper said.

And no one has made an estimate of what it will cost to renovate. But the number will surely run into the multimillions, he said.

“It’s a nice building,” Piper told me after a recent visit to Lordsburg. “I agree it has historical significance. But at what cost? At what point does the cost exceed the historical value?”

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Lauren Villagran in Las Cruces at lvillagran@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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