Historic Island gym is slated for demolition, board by board

The 90-year old wooden gym next to The Harbor School has been saved from the wrecking ball, but it won’t be standing in two weeks.

Instead of being razed, the building will be disassembled by hand and machine next week so that materials from the beloved building can be reused.

The 50-by-70-foot standalone structure has been the site of basketball games, roller skating sessions and many, many rainy-day recesses.

Owned by the school district, the Vashon Elementary School gym is beloved by some who remember their days within it fondly and by others who are simply enamored of its humble charm. Several Islanders rallied in the last two years to save the gym from demolition, seeking grants and historic designations to preserve the building. Their numbers were few, however, and their efforts fizzled out before they secured grants or historic status.

The gym hasn’t been occupied since it was deemed too dangerous for public use four years ago. And school district officials, unwilling to let the time bomb keep ticking, voted in July to spend $64,000 to bring the gym down.

“It’s a cool old building, and we don’t have many buildings with any soul on the Island, and it doesn’t feel very good to lose it,” said Bob Hennessey, school board chair, after the board voted three to two in July to tear down the gym and save a few choice beams.

“But especially at this time, spending scarce school district dollars and lots of them to save the structure, I don’t think would be responsible,” he added.

With a bouncy floor, aging roof, no water and not enough exits, it could cost $111,000 to $600,000 to bring the building to current safety codes, according to different estimates.

But there’s a great deal of value in the beams, flooring and paneling of the 1919 structure, some of which is unlike anything on the market today.

Island contractor Ron Mitchell, who was the lowest bidder for the gym’s demolition, recognized this fact after seeing the building up close.

He decided to save more of the boxy structure than the school district had requested. School officials asked Mitchell to set aside several enormous heavy timbers, up to 48 feet long, for potential reuse in the future at the site of the gym.

But Mitchell decided he’d like to see more of the unique building saved. He is collaborating with award-winning deconstructor Dave Bennink of Bellingham to disassemble the failing structure and save its parts for future Island projects.

“I said, ‘There’s no reason why we can’t change the way we went after this project — let’s try to salvage some of this building,’” Mitchell recalled.

Though he acknowledges it will take a bit more time and effort, Mitchell said he’s not undertaking the effort to make money himself.

Instead, he plans to offer up the flooring, timbers, beams and other valuable gym materials to Islanders “for a reasonable donation.”

He’ll turn around and give 100 percent of the purchase price to Vashon Island School District’s sports programs, which he said served his children well when they attended the Island’s public schools.

“We know in an era where funds are always being cut, even a little bit helps,” said Mitchell, who has experience in construction, demolition and deconstruction. “This has benefits other than the green, friendly, reusable concept. It feels good all the way around.”

The gym, which was recognized in May as one of the state’s most endangered public structures, will be “selectively deconstructed,” Mitchell said.

“Demolition is like destroying a building, whereas deconstruction is disassembling the building,” Bennink said. “When you disassemble a building, you keep things at their highest and best use.”

Deconstruction is a movement that’s picking up steam, he said, because it makes sense both environmentally and financially. Bennink has overseen the deconstruction of almost 500 buildings in 34 states, and eight of 10 times, he can do a job more cheaply than a demolition company.

“The old opinion that demolition is faster and cheaper is not necessarily true,” Bennink said. “I prove that by winning bids.”

Whereas demolition may take only two people — one to man the wrecking ball and one to run other machinery — deconstruction of the same building might take eight people, he said. But while labor costs are much higher for deconstruction, those costs are made up for by low disposal costs, he said.

“We’ve got a lot of labor, they’ve got a lot of disposal,” he said. “And when we take down a building like this gym, where it has paneling and flooring and beams, there’s a lot of value in that.”

He said he believes deconstruction will soon surpass demolition as the most popular method to take down a structure.

“People say it takes too long, and it costs too much,” he said. “Well, it doesn’t. ... It’s not an easy job, because it’s really labor intensive, ... but I think it’s a real worthy effort, because every building you save is one less going to the landfill.”

The materials that can’t be saved in the deconstruction of the gym will be hauled off the Island to a landfill in Seattle, Mitchell said, but there won’t be nearly as much throwaway as there could have been.

“One of the good things about having an Island contractor be the winning bidder is that he understands the values we have as a community,” Hennessey said. “It’s a very nice gesture on Ron’s part, both in terms of capturing a part of the Island’s history and supporting school district athletics. ... I think there will be a great deal of interest in having a piece of Vashon’s history in your home, your barn, and if it raises money for athletics, then so much the better.”

The beams the school district is saving will be stored at a park district facility on the Island, said school district capital projects manager Eric Gill.

Gill described the Island contractors’ effort as “another example of Islanders contributing for the good of the planet and the community.”

Ron Mitchell is collecting names of those who’d like to buy materials from the gym. Contact him at 463-5838.

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