Can An Old Schoolhouse Teach New Lessons In Community?

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Infrastructure , Historic preservation

The Odd Fellows Hall at Namskaket and Rock Harbor Road.  FILE PHOTO

ORLEANS Over the last 14 years, the historic Northwest Schoolhouse between Namskaket and Rock Harbor roads has received around $350,000 in community preservation funds from the town. Paul Davies is among those who wants to invite townspeople inside to benefit from their investment in the building, also known as the Odd Fellows Hall.

Although a public discussion May 20 at Snow Library on creating a “well-planned” teen center in the new basement of the Schoolhouse drew hardly anyone, Davies was nonetheless eager to explain what he sees as the great potential of the structure and site.

“The question I've put to people,” he said Saturday, “is what is the building for? What would the town like it to be for? We've put so much money into restoring the building (that) now the whole building has to be brought up to code.”

That includes accessibility, which would require a four-story elevator in an addition that would be connected to the Schoolhouse by glassed-in walkways. Davies displayed a model of the proposed building as well as a site sketch showing a stage facing the triangular green. It would be built in part of granite salvaged when the building was raised and put on its new foundation.

“We're planned to a T,” he said, citing the efforts of Cataumet architect David MacLean and landscape architect David Hawk of Sandwich.

The model shows dormer windows on the top floor, a feature Davies said would allow the Odd Fellows to relocate their meeting space there. But, he added, the community preservation committee discouraged such a significant change to the historic structure.

Davies said CPC encouraged the Odd Fellows to form a 501(c)3 non-profit that can receive donations, which they have done. The charter says the corporation will “aid in the restoration and maintenance of historic buildings...enter into mortgage and lease agreements to further historic restorations...promote community cohesiveness through a commitment to affordable housing...award scholarships and needs based grants...and foster events that promote education, cultural enrichment and community cohesiveness.”

That's a tall order for the tall building on the prominence above what Davies called “one of the two town greens,” the other being next to the library along Route 28. Located at “kind of the end of the business district,” he said, the 1855 schoolhouse really is “an old community center...We say Orleans has a community center, and they forgot they had it.”

Davies says the Schoolhouse could be the new community center some townspeople are pursuing, even though their focus is on land near the downtown CVS. He's also had talks with the Orleans Historical Society about the group putting up a building perpendicular to the Schoolhouse so it could share the elevator. He's engaged with Nauset Together We Can to bring back a teen center, an amenity the town has been without for some years.

“This is a funny old town,” Davies said. “They don't know what to do with kids."

For now, the building hosts 12-step programs, a men's consciousness group called the Mankind Project, and Cape Cod Community Daré, a healing circle. Lower Cape Outreach uses the building as a staging center for its Christmas gifts program. “It's really underutilized,” said Davies, who envisions a vibrant meeting space and cultural center featuring concerts, film screenings, and more.

Even the existing uses may be imperiled if funds are not raised to put in the elevator. Davies said the state architectural access board has granted the Schoolhouse two five-year waivers in recognition of efforts to update the building, but that can't continue forever. He's hopeful that another application for Massachusetts Cultural Council funding (“This year, we were close.”) could be successful. And there's always the possibility of more CPC funding, given that the restoration could tap into the qualifying categories of historic preservation (the building), open space (the green), recreation (the outdoor stage and other amenities), and possibly affordable housing.

Davies, who hopes to hold another information session in the fall, invites everyone to check out the details at www.northwestschoolhouse.org and to consider making a donation to the effort.