ROXBURY, NJ – A ripple of consternation disturbed the normal tranquility of life for some in Roxbury’s Lower Berkshire Valley on Tuesday. It came in the form of a rumor: Town officials were planning to bulldoze the old Lafayette School.
As it turned out, the report was a false alarm. The 96-year-old building on Mill Road has no wrecking ball in its future, at least in its near future. In fact, the town officials are actually mulling ways to fix it up and put it to good use.
But concern drew some Roxbury history buffs to Tuesday night’s meeting of the township Mayor and Council, where Lafayette School’s fate was on the agenda. They heard a presentation by historic building preservation expert Margaret Hickey, who studied the old building and said it's pretty unique, in pretty good shape and probably worth saving.
Unoccupied since 2009, and now used to store athletic equipment, the concrete and stone structure served as a school until the late 1950s or early 1960s, according to a report written by Hickey’s firm, Connolly & Hickey Historical Architects.
Although the township-owned structure is not on the state or national registers of historic places, Connolly & Hickey said it might qualify because it is “a rare surviving type” of 2-room schoolhouse popular in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century.
It will cost $750,000 to $1 million to rehabilitate the old schoolhouse, but Hickey told town officials grant money could cover all but about $200,000 of the cost if the building is deemed eligible for historic register placement.
“It’s a sweet, little building,” Hickey told the Mayor and Council. “It’s been changed on the inside, which probably allows you some flexibility with future use.”
One thing that would have to go is the wheelchair ramp that replaced the lovely front steps originally on the building, she said. Hickey suggested a limited-use elevator be installed, inside the structure, so handicapped people could enter at the basement level and be lifted to the upper floor. This would cost about $110,000, said her report.
The town officials said they were not opposed to pursuing such a preservation plan, but they did express concern about finding a sustainable use afterward. Roxbury Councilman Jim Rilee noted the township has wrestled for a decade with that problem.
“We’ve spent the better part of the last dozen years or so trying to rent or lease the space to a non-profit or something,” Rilee said. “It’s probably going to cost the township $200,000 or so to move forward with this project, if we get the grants … We also have other historic buildings in the town we want to take care of. We don’t want to divert money from the projects that are going on (on Main Street in Ledgewood).”
Mayor Mark Crowley agreed. “I want to see us follow through with the ones we already have,” he said. “I don’t want to lose this one either. We’ve all been struggling and looking for someone to make it a home.”
Addressing the town officials, Roxbury Historical Society President Margaret Cushing suggested the Lafayette School be returned to its roots as a place of learning. She said it would make an ideal museum of Roxbury history.
Recalling days gone by when Roxbury students were regularly marinated in that history – the canal, the mining and munitions industries, the ancient cemeteries – Cushing said today’s kids need such a museum.
Roxbury Manager Christopher Raths said he will ask the township Historic Advisory Committee and others to get involved in some “brainstorm sessions” to discuss Cushing’s idea and other possible uses for the building. "We'll get them in a room and see what we can do," he said.