Preservation vs. progress

Westport schoolhouse subject of debate
for firehouse expansion

The one-room school was built in 1882

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

WESTPORT, Ky. (July 2007) – In a tiny river town that has always been so proud of displaying its history, residents of Westport have been split in a debate over progress versus preservation for the last year. This controversy has sparked a flame that only be extinguished by the local fire department.

Westport Schoolhouse

Photo by Helen McKinney

Westport’s former schoolhouse has
a unique history and many cherished
memories for local residents.

Residents have discussed the fate of the slowly deteriorating Westport Community Schoolhouse Center for quite some time. The building sits on property that totals less than one acre and is owned by the Westport Volunteer Fire Department.
Adjacent to the fire department, the schoolhouse is viewed by some as an eyesore and by others as a cherished memory of days gone by. The fire department’s assistant chief, Pat Woosley, said she has tried to “do what the community wants” for the historic schoolhouse. But the fact of the matter is that the fire department needs to expand, even if it’s at the risk of endangering the schoolhouse, she says.
Woosley is stuck in the middle of procuring funds to provide a larger, much needed fire department facility and preserving a building that many consider the heart of the Westport community. The original one-room school was constructed in 1882, with an addition built sometime after 1922.
The building now sags, the stoop is sinking and the paint is chipping. What was once a place of laughter and learning for so many in the community is now a silent shell of a schoolhouse, void of any tangible life.
The firehouse is also an old building, according to Magistrate Bob Leslie. Upgrades are needed for the facility, he said, and more space for classroom training and equipment storage.
But for the fire department to expand, the schoolhouse may need to go. “The firehouse lies in a flood plain area,” said Leslie. “This eliminates the places the fire department could move to in Westport. To my understanding, they wish to rebuild on the current location and try to improve the property.”
In an effort to save the schoolhouse, Woosley has been in contact with the Kentucky Heritage Council (State Historic Preservation Office).
“I gave her good information to work with,” said Rachel Kennedy, Site Identification Program Manager for the council.
Kennedy said she has given Woosley ideas to consider for redesigning the new firehouse without demolishing the historic schoolhouse, which she believes could serve the firehouse in some capacity. The National Register of Historic Places states that a building must be 50 years or older to be considered a historic construction. Once placed on the register, a building is eligible for state preservation tax credits.
“It has to be significant in some aspect of history,” said Kennedy. It has to be intact enough and look similar to what it originally did. “The building as a whole is very valuable.”
What the community thought was the oldest part of the structure actually turned out to be the addition, and vice versa, said Kennedy. Officials from the Historic Preservation office visited the site and pointed out that the location of a well in relation to the building suggests that part of the structure that runs across the back is an addition to the building and not the original structure.
There is also evidence in the attic that the back portion is the addition. Nail holes can be viewed on the gable end studs where weatherboards were once applied. Details on the addition include such things as cornerboards and a cornice that show an effort was made to blend the addition and the original building architecturally.
In a former position with the Historic Preservation office, Kennedy oversaw the Historic Schools Initiative, which began in 2000. “It helped people understand the importance of historic schools,” she said. Similar projects include the renovation of the former Rosenwald School in Cadentown, Fayette County, Ky., and the Kentontown Church in Robertson County, Ky.
“People have a strong attachment to schools,” Kennedy said. “They identify with them personally and as a community resource. People are serious about preserving them.”
“There is no threat in us taking it down at this time,” said Woosley. If an agreement can be reached among citizens of Westport, the building will remain while the firehouse is rebuilt.
Last year, Oldham County Fiscal Court made an appropriation to try to help out, said Leslie. But some residents were unhappy with the offer of $24,500 from the county to save the schoolhouse, so it was withdrawn.
“The fire department doesn’t have the money to invest” in the schoolhouse, he said. “I don’t know where the funds will come from to fix the building.” Leslie said since the property belongs to the fire department, they have the final say in what will be done.
The Friends of Westport and the Westport Homemakers Club have tried to raise money for repairs. Had a private investor come forward to renovate the schoolhouse, there might not have been so much controversy over its fate, residents say. Many feel it is an ideal meeting place for community events, but Woosley pointed out that there are other places to meet, such as the two churches.
It could take up to $26,000 to stabilize the schoolhouse and make it a functioning building, said Woosley. It is now closed to the public because it has been deemed hazardous by Oldham County Code Enforcement.
For the moment, the two projects are in limbo. Woosley is waiting on blueprint bids. A new firehouse would be built in several stages, with a total cost of under $300,000.
It would be a steel structure with lots of specifics, she said. But this won’t happen until “all of our ducks are in a row.”

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