A Preservation Group Gets Deal On School - $1 Rent A Year With The Upper Merion Building Comes The Cost Of Pricey Repairs.

Posted: August 16, 1999

KING OF PRUSSIA — Even in Tim Allen's fantasy world, paying roughly $100 would be a pittance for a handyman's special with historic value.

But agreeing to pay $1 a year until 2098 to the Upper Merion Area School District to rent a picturesque one-room schoolhouse also means being saddled with a hefty ``to do'' list.

The Old Roberts Elementary School - a stone, blue-shuttered building on Croton Road - needs new heating and electrical systems, wooden gutters, repairs because of basement flooding, and other renovations that could cost into the six-figure range, said John Schank, business administrator for the school district.

Yet, it is with enthusiasm that a local preservation group - the Upper Merion Park and Historic Foundation - has agreed to repair and maintain the school, which is a 1950s re-creation of an 1855 building.

Last week, the school board unanimously voted to relieve the district of caring for the building.

``We are excited about the opportunity here,'' said Bob Krutsick, the historic foundation's president.

He said he was confident that his organization, with its more than 200 members, could raise the funds to preserve the building. Krutsick is assembling a steering committee to oversee the project and is researching the building's history.

``We hope to make it a showcase for the community,'' he said.

Now, it is primarily a showcase for something else - ceiling fans.

Inside the dark schoolhouse, these modern appliances sit on the wooden-plank floor before a slate blackboard like diligent students.

The fans are there only temporarily, Schank said. They were taken from Roberts Elementary School next door - the newer namesake of the Old Roberts School - before it was demolished earlier this summer.

Other items there, which hail from the original school building, are likely much more valuable. In the center of the room is a potbelly stove with ornate silver designs. Several shelves are full of weathered 19th-century textbooks with titles such as The Mother Tongue - an English grammar book - and MacVicar's Elementary Arithmetic. A wooden teacher's desk with a metal bell on top stands watch over the classroom.

For decades, the school has been the destination of field trips for Roberts Elementary School students. Recently, however, school officials found that keeping the building in visiting condition would take more time and money than they wanted to spend.

``The problem with [renovating] it is that it must match strict historical codes,'' said Schank, who said the recent replacement of eaves had become an expensive endeavor. ``We felt as a school district it isn't what we should spend taxpayer money on, and that would be better done by a historical society.''

School board member Tom Sizgorich disagreed. Despite voting to lease the school to the historic foundation, he said: ``We, as a district, have the responsibility to maintain school property. I do not believe we should be passing a problem onto another organization.'' He justified his vote by saying: ``It is the only avenue this board is pursuing to preserve this asset.''

But what Sizgorich calls a ``problem,'' Krutsick describes as an ``opportunity.'' Finding a project such as maintaining the school was ``one of our goals for this year,'' Krutsick said.

If all goes according to plan, he said, when the new Roberts Elementary School opens in September 2000, the Old Roberts Elementary School will again be ready for student visitors.

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