By Christine Sampson
It may be tough to see by simply looking at the outside, but an inside look at the former Stella Maris Regional School reveals a structure that has been cared for over the years along with a treasure trove of bits and pieces that can be put to good use, say school officials – in short, a building full of possibilities.
During a recent tour of the facility, what became clear was the potential the space has to support the pitch the district made to the community that led to the approval last May of a $10.23 million bond to purchase and upgrade the building.
That pitch included moving the district’s half-day prekindergarten program to the former Stella Maris building, establishing early childhood special education services there, leasing extra space to a private day care provider, relocating some offices there, holding community events, offering up space for adult education programs and possibly using the kitchen to expand the district’s food service capabilities.
The district in January appointed the Binghamton-based firm BCK-IBI Group to serve as both architect and construction manager on the Stella Maris project, and is in the process of putting together a committee of stakeholders – educators, administrators, parents, daycare providers and others – to work with BCK-IBI Group to further develop the plan.
“The building absolutely supports the initiatives we’re working towards,” Sag Harbor School District superintendent Katy Graves said in an interview in late January, while touring the facility. “There are pieces that have yet to be put in place … but initially it’s a good fit for the things we’ve been looking for. It is a wonderful space.”
Though some parts need work, the building features at least a dozen classrooms plus large-group instruction spaces, a commercial-grade kitchen and a gymnasium where the possibilities are expansive, said Ms. Graves.
Most notably, the gym will require a new floor – many of its tiles are uneven and the rubbery surface is outdated – but the stage will not need to be rebuilt. Once it’s upgraded, the big, bright and airy room is expected to benefit the district’s sports teams and arts programs with space for expanded uses. It even came with cafeteria-style tables, sound equipment and a floor cleaner.
“That was just huge. … Any of those little incremental things, when you buy those in today’s dollars – it’s just another capture of cost savings we’re moving forward with,” Ms. Graves said. “We know that this is not just going to be school space, this is going to be community space.”
During a walk-through of classrooms on the main level, it was almost as if time had been frozen before the former Catholic school closed in 2011. Drawings and words, from secular to religious in nature, remain scrawled on chalkboards. Desks and chairs still sit arranged in neat rows in some classrooms, while they’d been pushed to the side to make way for cleaning or stacked for storage or in other classrooms. Blocks, games, a tiny basketball hoop, a miniature kitchen play set and other toys await new little hands. All of it belongs to the Sag Harbor School District now because it, too, was included in the purchase from St. Andrew Catholic Church.
In what was once a kindergarten classroom, Ms. Graves picked up a tiny wooden chair from a bygone era. “I just think these are the greatest. These tell a story, don’t they?” she said.
The building is very clearly a former religious school. Crucifixes still hang above some doorways. Words such as “faith,” “reverence,” and “prayer” are painted along rainbow-colored sections of the hallways. A Bible remains on a desk in the main office.
Downstairs classrooms feature non-load-bearing walls that could be removed to create bigger spaces meant for large-group instruction, assemblies, lectures and the like, noted Ms. Graves.
But not all will have to be renovated inside the building. Some of the downstairs spaces, in fact, are in like-new shape after the church completed repairs following water damage from a leaky toilet that happened before the school district took ownership of the property.
“Some of the things we see structurally are going to stand alone,” Ms. Graves said. “We might have to change the doors to the specifications for New York State. You can’t have all glass anymore for safety’s sake. But the structure of the offices – we’re seeing this as very positive – those could be working offices. … We’ll just have to have some security features and some technology drops added.”
Carbon monoxide detectors, fire alarms and the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system will have to be upgraded.
“I want to hear what the architects have to say, but the Catholic church took very good care of this building,” Ms. Graves said. “We do know initially the roof needs to be replaced, which is a good way to start any project. A roof is a good investment … but drainage is paramount – one of the things we need to address.”
She called Stella Maris’s potential “extraordinary.”
“I’m very excited that we’ve moved forward with the Stella Maris project,” Ms. Graves said. “…It’s a place for us all as a school and a community to come together. That, I think, will give back to the school and the community for years to come.”