We at PAWV have partnered with the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority for a five-locale special program in the New River area: Bridges to the Past. Part of this partnership includes the display of our traveling exhibit, Preserving West Virginia: Saving Communities, giving special presentations about historic preservation, and touring historic sites in the region. Summersville in Nicholas County was the first stop on our five-month tour.
We were lucky to have Ray Moeller, West Virginia State University (WVSU) Extension Agent in Nicholas County, be our tour guide of Summersville’s historic hot spots. Ray was a great host. He picked us up at our hotel and drove us around to the Old Main School, Carnifex Ferry Park, Hawks Nest Workers Memorial and Grave Site, Summersville Lake, and more. Of all the sites, the Old Main School left the greatest impression on us. Old Main was the Nicholas County High School from 1913-1978. It is a three-story structure constructed of stone quarried not too far from where the building stands.
PAWV has focused its energies on highlighting dilapidated and vacant schools on the West Virginia Endangered Properties List (two were added to the list this year!). Recently, we’ve seen success stories for adaptive re-use of schools for housing in Clendenin, Charleston, and Elkins. These success stories are worth noting, but it’s important to understand that not every school building can be turned into affordable housing. The folks at the Old Main Foundation showed us a unique approach to making historic schools viable again.
It appears that the Old Main School project has evolved naturally over the years. The group formed in 1990 with the goal to turn the school into a regional cultural arts center. Fast forward twenty-four years, and we see first-hand what can be accomplished when a dedicated group of volunteers put their minds to something. The group has attained its goal, and the school now functions as a cultural arts center. Additionally, it houses a few offices for local organizations and businesses, demonstrating that the group has not limited itself to a certain scope, but that it has learned how to generate income to keep the building functioning and pristine. There are several rooms devoted to museum displays for veterans’ history, local history, and wild game, among other topics.
There is also a grand stage and auditorium that has been restored and is used for community performances. Groups can rent out spaces in the school for special events too. What’s remarkable about this project is that it is cutting edge compared to other school projects in West Virginia – many are in a stage of infancy. The Old Main Foundation found an approach that worked and ran with it. It may not work for every school building, but this project shows that there are endless options for preserving and re-using historic schools. All you really need is a dedicated group of volunteers with creative minds.
Old Main School is a historic preservation gem in the Nicholas County, and it is worth a visit on your summer trips to the New River. You can contact Jim Fitzwater at the Old Main Foundation for special tours and events by calling 304-872-5020. For more information, you can contact Ray Moeller at firstname.lastname@example.org.