'Ghosts of past' plague closed Schenley High School in North Oakland

| Monday, Feb. 11, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

On the outside, Schenley High School stands proud in North Oakland, its Indiana limestone stately and clean.

Inside, the 97-year-old grand dame of Pittsburgh Public Schools shows the ill effects of age and retirement.

A tour of three of Schenley's six levels revealed hallways littered with paint chips, fallen plaster and ceiling tiles. A buckled floor in the gymnasium formed a 20-foot-long wooden mound. A person could swim in the murky groundwater that seeped in and filled the bottom of the pool.

“We're pretty close to telling people to wear hard hats when they come in here,” said Peter Camarda, the district's chief financial and operations officer.

Inspecting the building with reporters on Thursday were Camarda, district custodian Jim Pozycki and Jerry Tullius, real estate asset manager for Fourth River Development. The company is managing the sale of closed buildings in the district.

A review panel of representatives from Fourth River, the school district and neighboring communities recommended on Wednesday that the school board accept a bid of $5.2 million from PMC Property Development Group to buy the building. The Philadelphia firm wants to convert it into about 175 luxury apartments. The board is scheduled to vote on the bid on Feb. 27.

Some residents have grumbled about the shuttered school since the board voted 5-4 in 2008 to close it because of the high cost of repairs and concerns about asbestos. Opponents of the closing contend the district inflated the asbestos worries and repair costs, with one estimate reaching $75 million.

In January, the board authorized two more estimates on what it would cost to fix the building. Those estimates are expected on Friday.

In the tour of a hallway, meanwhile, holes more than 2 feet wide gape through the ceiling. Camarda noted two 1-foot-square ceiling tiles on the floor among the many that litter the hallways.

“We didn't put them there for dramatic effect,” he assured.

A window replacement project that cost about $1.5 million in 2004-05 worsened the moisture problem.

“The windows made the building more airtight and exacerbated the problem,” he said.

Throughout the building, cracks snake across the terrazzo floor, and peeling paint hangs from the ceiling like stalactites.

“The original plaster contains asbestos,” Tullius said. “When the plaster falls off, that's when the asbestos is released.”

A 2009 report by Kimball Architecture, Downtown, said only two of 476 samples of material from Schenley had asbestos of more than 1 percent. Asked about the risk of asbestos, Camarda declined to comment.

The group walked under an opening in the ceiling from which wires dangled, their tips duct-taped. In a former social studies classroom, the blackboard featured a lesson on President Harry Truman and the atomic bomb. Three tiles in the ceiling were missing or had shifted.

Camarda said the district spends $80,000 a year to maintain and secure the building.

Why not spend more on maintenance to get higher bids?

“We weren't misrepresenting the condition of the building,” Camarda said. “People knew what they were getting into and the condition of the building.”

Officials from PMC did not return calls seeking comment.

Tullius conceded that the closing of the building sped its deterioration.

“When the building is occupied, the mechanical systems are working, bringing in fresh air and pushing out stale air,” he said. Now, he said, the mechanical system is on “but at a minimum level.”

Entering the gym, it's hard to imagine that only six years ago, Schenley won a state basketball title. Tullius measured a mound in the wooden flooring a foot tall at its peak near one of the baskets. He said he didn't know why it had formed.

“Ghosts of Schenley past,” Pozycki quipped.

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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