Old-school charm in new apartments
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- From the moment you walk through the double doors, the old school atmosphere comes back. You half expect to hear the tardy bell or an announcement over the intercom.
There's the principal's office on the left; you can make out traces of the lettering on the door. The old combination gym/auditorium is straight ahead, while the janitor's closet is around the corner to the right. The boys and girls rooms are on the second floor.
Step inside one of the classrooms of the former Glenwood School, though, and a different picture emerges -- apartments, freshly painted, ready for occupancy.
Chris Sadd, developer of Glenwood at Luna Park, said the conversion of the old elementary school that he and his brothers bought two years ago is virtually complete.
"We're just waiting to get the asphalt put down, and we'll be ready to open," Sadd said Tuesday.
Closed in 2011 and consolidated into the then-new West Side Elementary, Glenwood nearly faced a wrecker's ball. Mayor Danny Jones and his administration planned to acquire the site to create a neighborhood park in a land swap as part of their 2010 plan to have the Kanawha County school board build another consolidated school at Cato Park.
School board officials said the building was full of problems -- a leaky roof, asbestos, bowed windows, accessibility issues.
"You'd think it would be cheaper to fix the building than replace it," facilities planner Chuck Wilson said at the time. But after comparing costs they concluded, "The first thing you do is bulldoze it."
Historic-preservation activists thought otherwise. Other cities successfully saved old schools. Why not Charleston? Glenwood, designed in 1922 by H. Rus Warne, is an architectural gem that anchors the Luna Park Historic District, they said,
Between that and other hassles, the school board backed off and found another site for its Edgewood-area school, now under construction.
The Sadds weren't involved with the property -- or its issues -- at that point, Chris Sadd said, although brother and business partner Mark serves on the national Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
"At the time, we weren't thinking of doing that," Sadd said. "It wasn't an obvious choice."
By the time the school board put the school up for auction in July 2011, though, the Sadds submitted the sole bid -- $50,000 -- and bought the property. Two months later, they got the site rezoned for their proposal to carve the building up into 31 apartments for senior citizens.
Renovations started in November 2012 and are mosty complete, Sadd said.
Contrary to prior reports, he said, the building was in pretty good shape.
"It was actually in very good shape," Sadd said. "We couldn't have asked for anything better. Our experience was the building was so structurally sound, we didn't find any structural issues.
"It's been here since 1922. Look at the mortar and the brick. They're good buildings. When you say they don't build things like they used to, it's true."
Not that everything was hunky-dory. They replaced the leaking roof. All-new electrical, plumbing and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems were installed. Every window was painstakingly restored -- the steel frames scraped and painted, filled with new double-paned tinted argon-filled panes.
Carving 31 one- and two-bedroom apartments out of the old classrooms, each with an attached cloakroom, was a complicated jigsaw puzzle, Sadd said. Each one is slightly different. Some old walls were removed, new ones built. The layout changed over time.
"We actually built walls, tore them down and redesigned apartments," he said. "I can't tell you how many times we redesigned.
"There's only so much pre-planning you can do for the wiring and HVAC. You just have to get into each individual unit and design on the fly."
Sadd started showing off the first floor to potential tenants about a month ago, after running newspaper ads. He's also given private tours to city officials and other insiders.
City Councilwoman Mary Jean Davis gushed about it at a recent meeting.
"When I went over there, I could hardly close my mouth. I'm just so excited. When you think about all the buildings we've lost, Chris Sadd has done an absolute amazing job."
The first thing you notice when entering a unit is the windows, rows of huge windows, along the outside wall -- eight feet tall, 40 inches wide. Sadd raised the shades on a Grant Street side apartment and sunlight flooded in.
Ceilings are tall -- more than 12 feet, except where ductwork is hidden above 8-foot ceilings.
Each unit is furnished with black kitchen appliances and wood cabinets, with lots of closets for storage and washer/dryer hookups.
Sadd pointed out some not-so-obvious features, like the climate controls.
"Each apartment has its own fresh-air system. [It] brings in fresh air from the outside, tempered air. Exhausts over the stove and in the bathroom pull air out of the unit, keeping it fresh.
"You'd be surprised how much moisture you generate cooking, and in the bathroom," he said. "It can stagnate if you don't pull it out. You've heard of sick-building syndrome?"
Despite the features, the apartments are modest in size, especially the bedrooms. A typical two-bedroom unit, with a living/dining room, open kitchen, bath and closets, runs around 850 square feet.
You can see sample floor plans at their website, GlenwoodAtLunaPark.com. The name comes from the once-popular amusement park that stood across the street. It closed in 1923 following a fire, just after the school opened.
Contractors preserved as much of the original school as possible, Sadd said. "We left the old room numbers. That's a dead door," he said, pointing at the janitor's closet, "but we left the janitor name on top."
In an apartment, an old baseboard butts up against a new molding on a new adjoining wall.
"We intentionally didn't try to match the original baseboard," he said. "We want to make it obvious -- this is a new wall, this is old. That's part of the preservation process."
That sort of attention comes at a price, about $4 million, Sadd said, nearly all of which is funded through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program of the West Virginia Housing Development Fund.
Private investors earn tax credits by investing in the project, he said, and the money is used for construction. "It's privately owned and operated," he said.
Because of the tax credits, the developers can't seek federal and state historic-preservation tax credits, as previously planned, Sadd said. Even so, they followed National Park Service historic-preservation guidelines for the project, he said.
The funding source also restricts eligibility for renting an apartment. While the project was always targeted for senior citizens, tenants also must meet low- to moderate-income standards.
According to the project website, single tenants can have no more than $27,060 in annual income; for two people, $30,900.
Rents are equally moderate -- $465 a month is typical for a one-bedroom unit, including water, sewer, fire service and trash. Two-bedroom units top out at $565, Sadd said.
Interest has been high, so far, he said. Dozens of people have filled out applications.
For more information on the apartments, call John Kushner, at 304-982-7757.