Dick Cooper - October 2010

 

Oxford Community Center
Everything Old is New Again!
by
Dick Cooper

 

Bob Dietz looks at the dark, stained drop ceiling of the Oxford Community Center’s main room and sees a vaulted atrium full of light and promise. He has good reason to expect that transformation because above that drop ceiling and behind the aluminum siding, there is a vaulted atrium with arching windows to let in the light.
Dietz, a member of the Community Center’s 30-member board, is spearheading the plan to restore the old school building to its original configuration and restore the aging structure that has been a centerpiece of town life for more than eight decades.
The Community Center board has been quietly working through the summer to raise money for the $2.5 million project and plans to make a public push for support in November. Dietz says that $1.1 million has been privately pledged so far, but the lion’s share of the funds have to come from the area residents who use the center and see its importance to the town.
“The reason we need to do this is that the building was built in 1928 and it is literally starting to come down,” Dietz says. “There is no question that extensive maintenance has to be done.”
He says that the building, which was last used as the Oxford School in 1971, has been jury-rigged for years, but now it is necessary to do a complete restoration. “We decided we have to restore it for it to continue to give value to the community,” Dietz says.
He said the building has added historic value because it is the last Eastern Shore schoolhouse designed by Baltimore architect Henry Powell Hopkins that is still standing. Hopkins, who was born in 1886 and raised in the Murray Hill neighborhood of Annapolis, was a major influence in academic architecture in Maryland. He designed buildings on the University of Maryland campus in College Park and on Washington College’s campus in Chestertown. He also oversaw the restoration of the Maryland State House and was instrumental in the Colonial Annapolis development.
According to the University of Maryland Libraries, where his papers are archived, Hopkins was greatly influenced by the grand Georgian homes of his home neighborhood. His works frequently featured facades accentuated with tall white pillars.
The six columns on the front of the Community Center are examples of his signature work. Dietz points to early photographs of the building showing the pillared entrance was once adorned with six finials. The finials have long since disappeared but will be replaced during the restoration.
Hopkins, who died in 1989, designed the school to be both simple and multi-functional. The six classrooms surround, and open onto, the central theater and arts auditorium with stage.
The schools he designed in Easton and Cambridge have been torn down. The Oxford School was about to experience a similar fate 30 years ago. The building had been used for various community functions but was falling into disrepair and was going to be demolished and the land turned into a park. Community residents, led by local businessman Philip G. Conner, fought to save the building and formed the current non-profit Community Center to run it. The center is used by about 8,000 people a year and is the home of the Tred Avon Players amateur theater troupe, the Oxford Kids Camp, after-school children’s programs and a wide variety of community functions.
Dietz said that, while the center has been open and functioning since, it is now time to make major repairs. He says that new footers have to be placed under the floor where it is cracking. Steel beams that were installed 60 years ago have rusted through, and exterior bricks are crumbling. Water-stained ceiling tiles attest to leaks in the roof.
The ambitious plans include reroofing the building, replacing the piecemeal heating and air-conditioning systems with a new geothermal system, reinforcing the walls and foundation and replacing the single-pane, aluminum-framed windows with modern, energy-saving windows. Even the lighting will be replaced with fixtures that reduce electrical usage.
“We are going to have a very ‘green’ building when we are finished,” Dietz says.
The most dramatic part of the restoration will be the removal of the drop ceilings in the theater arts auditorium and the unveiling of the three large arched windows. The windows have long been covered with siding.
The dark auditorium will be filled with light from three angles. The Klieg lights that are now attached to pipes along the walls and dangling from the ceiling for theatrical productions will be replaced with modern, computer-operated stage lighting. The director’s booth in the balcony will be removed and the windows uncovered. Stage lighting will be controlled by a keyboard, Dietz says.
As Dietz leads a tour through the building, he opens the door to the backstage room. Decades of patched-together HVAC equipment and wiring crowd the room. He says five separate heating and cooling systems will be replaced by one. “We are adding a utility room behind the building and all of this mechanical equipment will be moved out of here,” he said.
Another new feature of the building will be a redesign of one of the rooms into a reception area that can be used for weddings and other dinner functions. That room will open onto a patio with a pergola that can be covered with canvas in case of rain.
“We said let’s fix the building. Let’s get the safety codes up. But since we have to tear away walls and fix things, why don’t we enhance the interior while we fix the exterior,” Dietz says. “This will be a true restoration. We will be able to use the building the way we have but expand it so that it will truly add benefits to those who use it.”

Dick Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and his wife, Pat, live and sail in St. Michaels, Maryland. He can be contacted at dickcooper@coopermediaassociates.com.