OAK HILL — Vickie Smith has a special place in her heart for the SALS Historic Oak Hill School.
After all, she performed her student teaching in the building, and she has had children and grandchildren attend school in the structure.
That's what makes the recent notification of the designation of the school as an entry in the National Register of Historic Places a little bit sweeter for her.
In a Sept. 16 letter to Southern Appalachian Labor School Director Dr. John David, Susan Pierce, the deputy state historic preservation officer with the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, wrote: "We are pleased to inform you that the following historic property (Oak Hill High School, 140 School Street, Oak Hill, Fayette County, WV) which you own, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on Sept. 4, 2020. This honorary designation identifies this cultural resource's significant contribution to the history of West Virginia."
The designation, approved by the National Park Service in cooperation with the West Virginia Archives and History Commission, is a major achievement that took several years to accomplish, officials say. In addition to an extensive application prepared by the SALS staff and crucial local support being obtained, the effort involved consulting services by Isabel Thornton from Restoration Housing in Roanoke, funding through Community Works of West Virginia and the City of Oak Hill, and advising by Jeffrey Smith with West Virginia Culture and History.
According to Pierce, the National Register of Historic Places is the federal government's official list of historic properties worthy of preservation. Oak Hill now has two structures on the list, the other being the former railroad depot at the corner of Virginia Street and Central Avenue. Technically, the Historic Oak Hill School will be listed as Oak Hill High School since that was the original name of the building, as it housed students for more than two decades beginning in 1928. In 1950, the high school moved into a new building on Jones Avenue and became Collins High School, according to https://ohhsteams.wordpress.com/ohhs-history/.
The newly-listed national register structure sits on the location of the original Oak Hill, West Virginia's first high school in 1904, according to supporting material in the application to the United States Department of the Interior. Two other structures later housed high school students in the area before the now-historically designated Oak Hill High School was built. It was the first school constructed of masonry in the region and it "exhibits the quintessential characteristics of the Neoclassical architectural style, a style popular in civic and public structures at the time of its construction," read the supporting documents in the registration form.
At a recent Oak Hill City Council meeting, Dr. David offered thanks to the city for its support of a National Register of Historic Places bid for the school, and Mayor Danny Wright acknowledged the effort that goes into securing a nomination.
In a press release, Wright said, "There has been a tremendous amount of work involved in the accomplishment of this wonderful historic designation not only for SALS but for the City of Oak Hill."
Work is ongoing to keep the building functional. In recent months, two new handicap-accessible bathrooms were installed "because there were no handicap-accessible (restrooms)," Smith said. A handicap ramp was repaired, and hand railings were rebuilt. Other work is being accomplished, as well.
Some of the recent efforts helped accommodate a recent move into the site by the West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services. The building also houses a HUD housing counseling office, the Helen M. Powell Food Pantry and the WV Youth Reporting Center, among other entities. The school includes a conference room for meetings, an auditorium which has been used for many functions over the years (although Covid-19 has curtailed its use currently), and a fitness area that is utilized by the community.
YouthBuild, AmeriCorps and VISTA have also operated from the facility. There is also a community radio station, WAGE-FM 106.5, onsite.
A water sprinkler protects the second floor of the building, and SALS has a large natural gas-powered generator that helps it, among other things, be available as a county emergency shelter.
Smith, the SALS construction manager and a big mover in maintaining the SALS Historic Oak Hill School, said further renovation plans are presently incomplete but the vision is to make the facility "a vibrant downtown hub for cultural presentations, senior living, dining, physical education, housing counseling and community services.
"We still have that vision (of utilizing the third floor for veterans and possibly senior housing units)."
"It's a beautiful building," she added. "This building itself has a lot of potential."
A key project which needs to be accomplished as soon as possible is work on the roof, which is leaking in spots. "Right now, the roof is in need of repairs badly," Smith said.
David noted that, with the historic designation, further restoration and re-purposing of the building will now be eligible for tax credits of up to 45 percent — 20 percent from the federal government and 25 percent from the state.
The structure was utilized for Oak Hill Elementary School students after the high school moved. The elementary closed a little over a decade ago and the students were moved to the new New River Elementary School. SALS bought it at public auction for $70,000, David said.
SALS provides education, research and linkages in order to promote understanding, empowerment and change, David said. People can read the SALS Journal and learn about activities at www.sals.info, check on Facebook under the Southern Appalachian Labor School, or contact SALS at SALS@citynet.net.
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