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Gary school's demise sad, let's learn from it

We tend to make things that are easily thrown away these days, as cheap and light and thoughtlessly discarded as an empty Big Gulp cup on the highway.

We didn't always.

Nearly a century ago, they built a school, red brick by red brick, in a town near Ybor City called Gary. (It's still called Gary, though even people who have lived in Tampa for decades might think you mean a town in Indiana.)

The Gary school was like a lot of good solid buildings back then, cigar factories and warehouses and businesses, tall and handsome and built to weather time. For 95 years, it did.

But apparently the building outlived itself, at least in some eyes. Even its history of generations of students may not have been enough to save it.

Last year, the Hillsborough School Board got rid of what had become a dilapidated old building, selling it off for $331,000 to someone who planned to turn it into a sports facility for private schools.

Neighbors saw what had happened there, despite a city historic landmark designation that put the school in the company of the likes of the University of Tampa and old City Hall.

People who lived around the old school said no one was doing enough to save it. They said it just last week in front of the City Council.

Within days, the roof of the old Gary school collapsed, taking part of a red brick wall down with it. Or, as a city press release put it, "A catastrophic structural failure occurred ... resulting in the collapse of approximately 30 to 40 percent of the building's west side."

If you love old buildings — or even if you just appreciate what they have to say about a town — what happened there could break your heart. Beyond the fence now wrapped in red tape marked DANGER is a ruin. It is history that looks to be pretty much history.

We have managed to preserve old buildings before.

Gorrie Elementary and Wilson Middle schools in Hyde Park are beautifully maintained. Look at Hillsborough High in Seminole Heights, with its International Baccalaureate program.

Around town, we have privately-owned former cigar factories in business as offices and such.

We do know how to do this.

Gary today is an urban neighborhood of commercial businesses behind high fences, grand dame bungalows gone to seed and patchwork housing in the shadow of Interstate 4. The school was a jewel of a building anywhere, but especially here.

Councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena has faulted both the School Board and the property owner. That owner, John V. Simon Jr., vehemently insists the building was in documented "deplorable" disrepair when he got it.

They'll get a chance to duke it out at a 2 p.m. emergency code enforcement hearing today in City Council Chambers. Simon was served with a notice of violation after an inspection months ago, and the city issued another one this week after the collapse.

City officials had been working on an ordinance to address so-called "demolition by neglect." While it may be too late for the Gary school, we need to keep others from disappearing.

There's that saying about history, about how if we don't learn from it, we're doomed to repeat it.

Around here, we don't have enough history left to lose.

Gary school's demise sad, let's learn from it 07/24/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 24, 2008 8:55pm]

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