Las Vegas Sun

November 26, 2014

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Lessons in history

Crews carefully gut the interior of the historic Fifth Street School, exposing hidden doors, skylights and students' initials carved in the concrete in the '50s.

They are two weeks into the final phase of a $9.5 million project to rehabilitate the school.

When teachers and students move in next year, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman will finally have his "agora."

But no celebrating. Not yet. Goodman is waiting until he hears music from the first violin virtuoso wafting from the building. Then he'll celebrate.

"It's going to be a centerpiece of intellectual energy," he says of his pet project.

The mission-style building has been burned by vandals, abandoned, eyed for demolition and used for storage. Yet here it is, a testament to what Las Vegas once was.

Architecturally, the school is a relic of a different kind. It doesn't have the romantic allure of retro chic or vintage neon. It doesn't reference googie architecture. But it completes the city's story.

"It really takes you back to when there were houses downtown, when all that was residential," says Dorothy Wright, vice president of the Las Vegas Historic Preservation Commission and spokeswoman for Clark County's Cultural Affairs Division.

"It's just a jewel and we have so few things left."

Built in 1936 by expert concrete pourers who had worked on Boulder (now Hoover) Dam, it was the grammar school for a city with fewer than 8,000 residents. As the valley's population grew, it emptied and was replaced by more - and more - modern facilities.

Metro Police used it as a substation, and it once housed 1,000 county employees. It was eyed as a potential site for the Las Vegas Art Museum and a possible retail, art and entertainment space. There was talk of razing it to build a federal courthouse.

Its future always seemed speculative.

Debate continued after it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. Preservationists offered a collective sigh of relief when the city unveiled plans for a "cultural oasis" at the old school. Problem solved.

The new tenants will be the Nevada School of the Arts, UNLV's School of Architecture, the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the city's Cultural Affairs department.

The Nevada School of the Arts will have seven teaching studios, three large rehearsal halls and administrative offices. Rent is $1 a year.

It will create a hub for the 30-year-old nonprofit music school. Staff and faculty leave behind the business complex at Flamingo Road and Decatur Boulevard where cramped quarters cause many to teach from home.

"When everybody is teaching at home there is no continuity," says Shakeh Ghoukasian, dean of the school, music teacher and violinist for the Las Vegas Philharmonic. "We've always lived in somebody else's house."

Michael Kroelinger, director of UNLV's School of Architecture, is equally jazzed. UNLV has had two design studios in the Fifth Street School for nine years. It will get more space, allowing it to establish a Downtown Design Center, which will focus on urban design issues, enhance community engagement and conduct research projects.

But there is much to be done in this nine-month project. Its national historic status means the exterior must look as it was originally designed by Orville L. Clark and George K. Thompson.

A set of preserved windows and French doors serve as models for the 170 windows and doors. (Goodman is pushing for stained-glass windows that would tell the story of Las Vegas.)

Workers will reroof the building and reactivate the fountain in the courtyard plaza, removing its mosaic to reveal the original blue and green tiles.

The trophy case in the breezeway stays. So will students' initials carved into stone overlooking the courtyard, "petroglyphs" from 1953 and '55.

Workers will keep the Las Vegas Grammar School sign etched into the building, and a new sign will be added to identify it as the historic Fifth Street School.

There will be some other changes, starting with the building's address, which will be 401 S. Fourth St. The school's Fifth Street moniker came because its original entrance was on Fifth Street, now Las Vegas Boulevard.

Some things will be changed.

The school's old tennis courts will be landscaped. The gymnasium will be turned into a public auditorium. The dropped ceilings have been removed so the interior will be back in original form.

The process has revealed little discoveries: Walls were unsealed to reveal doors that led to faculty bathrooms. Skylights, in what will be the gallery space, were also a surprise.

"It was kind of fun to see how the school functioned," says Frank Trupiano, principal designer in the public works department. "There are no original plans for the building so we're on our own for figuring out its original use."

The city's Redevelopment Agency owns the building and is overseeing the rehabilitation .

"It's one of the few old buildings that is actually going to get preserved so we're excited about that," says Stoney Douglas, senior economic development officer.

"There weren't very many buildings in the valley. A 70-year-old building for us is a big deal, especially when the town is only 100 years old."

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