Hamilton schools studying future facilities, with option of tearing down historic auditorium

The historic Safford Auditorium at Hamilton High School dates to 1927 and was restored in 2007. It is among the facilities that the Hamilton School Board is discussing as the district looks at future options of its facilities. Under one scenario, the auditorium would meet the wrecking ball. | H-W Photo/Michael Kipley
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Dec. 1, 2017 12:01 am Updated: Dec. 1, 2017 11:21 pm

HAMILTON, Ill. -- The Hamilton School District's focus on the future could jeopardize a significant piece of its past.

The School Board is looking at options to create 21st-century learning environments for students that support collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking in facilities that are safe and secure, designed for technology, flexible, and student-centered.

One option calls for building an addition to the elementary school and converting it to serve kindergarten through eighth grade, making health life-safety and 21st-century updates at the high school, and demolishing the high school's Safford Auditorium at an estimated cost of $12 million.

However, Chuck Miller and other district residents don't want to see the auditorium demolished.

"Hamilton is like all schools, always thinking about how to improve education for their students," Miller said. "One of the plans is tearing down Safford Auditorium, and that's kind of got some of us upset. We don't want to see Safford torn down. It's a fine historical building."

Instead Miller wants to persuade the School Board to use an alternative plan, one that doesn't involve tearing down the auditorium, which dates to 1927. Safford was restored and rededicated in 2007, thanks to community support.

"It was much more to do with getting students out of a 90-year-old classroom building than anything to do with Safford Auditorium," School Board President Matthew Starr said.

"I'm not sold on the destruction of that building at all yet, but I do think the best interest of students might be not attending classes in the Safford school building anymore."


Standalone option

Focusing on school facilities is the second task of a community leadership group that first targeted finances and spearheaded a successful education fund referendum in 2015.

The group reconvened to look at how best to serve students in connection with the district's 10-year life-safety survey, which called for $9.4 million in work to existing buildings.

Starr said the School Board wants to give direction to district administrators and architects about which path to follow to start developing detailed plans and determine how to pay for the projects.

The option that included tearing down the auditorium was favored at a late October town hall meeting. But as the School Board expected, it also raised concerns.

"We want to know, is that 10 percent of the community, 50 percent of the community?" Starr said. "If that building, that history means something to the community, our question is answered, and we'll plan around that."

One possibility could be picking that option but not demolishing the auditorium.

"The school building could be demolished, and the auditorium could be a standalone unit," Starr said. "You could save the seats to put in a new space in a new or remodeled facility."

Starr understands Miller's worries about the historical value of the auditorium.

"That's something you can't get around," Starr said. "But I don't see that the board that decided to build the building in '27 probably expected it to be in use 90 years later. I don't know that anybody expects that."


$10,000 bequest

The late Rev. Mary Safford's desire to do something for the community in 1927 turned into the school building and auditorium that bears her name.

Safford was born in Quincy and raised in Hamilton. An active minister in the Unitarian Church, she started a congregation in Hamilton, then served congregations in Iowa before retiring to Florida.

She bequeathed $10,000 to the community, which funded Safford Memorial Hall, designed by Quincy architect Martin Geise in the Late Gothic Revival style. It features a contrasting brick-and-stone exterior; a flat roof; arched doors and windows; and elaborate decoration with plaster panels, arches and quatrefoils.

The hall was used for years for community and school activities. But when the School District needed more space in 1986, it converted a portion to classrooms, then office space.

A restoration effort spearheaded in the early 2000s by then-Superintendent Steve Breckon got seed money from the classes of 1952 and 1953. What became known as the Safford Group took on the project, and Miller said $100,000 was raised for the restoration.

"The biggest item was new seating. We improved the sound system some, did some lighting for the stage, but the major thing was the seating," he said. "We had 330 seats, and folks that contributed $325 bought a seat, and their name got put on it."

The auditorium gets little use beyond grade school plays, graduations and concerts after initial plans for community theater productions and movie nights didn't materialize. Starr said even the classroom use in the building is limited because the teaching environment "is not where we'd like it to be."


Important space

But Miller still believes the space is important for the School District and community.

"It's our generation that reveres something like that," he said. "The younger generation knows nothing about Mary Safford, nothing about the history of the building. It's just an auditorium.

"We're trying to get the history of the building out, get people involved … with something that can mean a lot to the city of Hamilton. If you think that tearing down Safford will increase the educational value of our young people, we disagree."

Once the future for the district's facilities is decided, it will be phased in over time.

"Construction is not imminent," Starr said. "Even if construction were imminent, Safford could be in phase 3. Making the elementary K-8 would be a very obvious phase 1. The goal would be to get students out of the old building and have them in an updated educational facility.

"Then there's some other decisions to be made for phase 2 or 3."



The Hamilton School Board and district administrators want to hear more from residents about future plans for facilities.

To find out about options under discussion or to get more information, go online to Click on "Community Meeting Update" in the upper-right corner of the page.

Comments may be shared by calling the district office at 866-332-3880.

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