As Published in the Abilene Reporter-News on Sunday, March 15, 2020 by Brian Bethel
Contractors’ trucks have been surrounding the entrances of Abilene Heritage Square for a several days as pre-construction activities commence.
Housed in the former Lincoln Middle School/Abilene High School at 1699 South First St., both the 1923 main building and 1929 gymnasium gymnasium are being renovated, preserving their historic facades.
The finished project will include a number of amenities including an extension of The Grace Museum, a 700-seat auditorium, the Stone Owl Institute program and a new centralized location for the Abilene Public Library.
Abilene historian Jay Moore, who will head the Stone Owl Institute, said the project is "momentous," taking a structure that some may have taken for granted through the years and restoring it to proper use and cementing its historical place.
Estimated cost of planned full renovation has been pegged at around $41.5 million, which includes all furnishings, and a $1.5 million endowment to help fund long-term maintenance costs.
The money is being raised through foundation and government grants, and gifts from individuals, families and companies.
In an email, Abilene architect Bill Minter said the total in gifts and pledges, not taking into account smaller memorial or honorary gifts, or new gifts made online, is $39,136,735.
Works in Progress
Among present activity at the former school:
► Contractors are clearing materials in the building that will not be a part of the completed project.
Examples include the lowered hallway ceilings installed years ago as part of an air-conditioning project. Salvage is being conducted where it is considered practical by the project architects.
► Old electrical panels and conduits are being removed. A temporary electrical connection and construction lighting are being installed.
► Most of the existing tree and shrub growth is being removed to permit access to the exterior walls and to allow a construction fence to be installed.
Legacy tree growth is often detrimental to foundations, the release notes, though a live oak that was planted in memory of a Lincoln Middle School teacher, Judson Shields (1944-1994), is being preserved.
► Later this spring, a masonry cleaning and restoration process will begin, and the exterior brick and stonework should soon look much brighter than they have in recent memory.
Test areas on the east facade of the academic building and north facade of the Eagle’s Nest are examples of what the restored masonry will look like.
► Identification and selective removal of any materials considered hazardous are being conducted.
► Architects are inspecting various aspects of all building features in preparation for the compilation of construction documents that will guide the bid process to select a general contractor.
When this phase is ended, construction will pause momentarily as the team completes design work and compiles the construction documents.
An Important Spot
When it was built in 1923, the school was deliberately placed near the railroad — and what was known as Bankhead Highway — with a goal of showing those traveling through that Abilene was city was devoted to education.
Residents had built a first high school on the property in 1890, then after need became great enough built a high school in 1909 behind the first structure.
That school was located on the corner of South Third and Peach streets.
"They outgrew that (property) by the early 1920s," Moore said.
For just a short time there, "there were three high schools on the same piece of property," Moore said.
Students had to move into the new building earlier than anticipated due to a fire in April 1923, meaning that first class only stayed a month or so before graduation.
"The old high school, the one behind it, was remodeled," Moore said, and used as an elementary school until the 1970s.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building closed in 2007. A task force of Abilene residents worked to repurpose it.
In December 2019, the Abilene City Council transferred ownership of the former school property, which had been deeded to the city in November 2012, to a nonprofit corporation, Abilene Heritage Square Inc.
"It’s an important piece of ground for Abilene," Moore said of the building, one with a long history of educational use.
"It’s a place where learning has taken place for 130 years, and it’s going to keep going," he said.
The project’s website is www.abileneheritagesquare.org. The site offers the ability to sign up for information and the ability to make a gift online.