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Claremont School Board Puts Stevens Stage Demolition on Hold

Claremont — The planned demolition of the Stevens High School auditorium stage, as part of the $12.6 million renovation project, has been put on hold after several students told the School Board Wednesday night they were upset about losing one of the school’s iconic structures.

The stage, they said, is a place where students have made lasting memories and friendships over the generations.

“When I heard they were demolishing a four foot stage and replacing it with a three inch (tall) stage, that upset me,” said Stevens student Owen Ritondo. “It is just an issue that sticks with me personally. All I want is to do is prolong (the demolition) until we can figure out what to do with the space — see if there are other solutions.

“Nine days is not enough time to figure this out,” Ritondo said, referring to the scheduled Dec. 15 demolition of the wooden structure.

Another student, Gillian Cahill, whose mother, Larissa Cahill, is the Stevens theater arts teacher, said a three-inch-tall stage is in effect no stage at all and will mean an end to performances at Stevens because of poor acoustics and insufficient room for something such as a band and chorus concert.

“Why do a whole renovation and not be able to use what we fixed,” Cahill asked.

After the discussion, board chairman Richard Seaman told board member Dave Putnam, who is also chairman of the Stevens Renovation Committee, that given the public outcry, any decision on the stage going forward will be made by the board, not the committee, which is charged with making weekly decisions on the project.

Earlier Wednesday, at the renovation committee meeting, the committee agreed to invite the public to the auditorium after the stage is demolished to “look at the space” and consider how to best transform it. The current design is a three-inch “raked,” or slightly inclined stage.

At the School Board meeting, Superintendent Middleton McGoodwin repeated what was stated at the committee meeting by Steve Horton, the school district’s representative on the project, as to why the stage has to go.

Quoting Horton, McGoodwin explained that when a renovation project includes more than 50 percent of a structure, under state law, the entire building must be brought up to current fire and safety codes.

“The stage is illegal because it is combustible,” McGoodwin said. “So by state law, it needs to be removed. It is not an arbitrary decision.”

He also said that Horton estimates a new stage of similar size made of fire rated materials would cost between $300,000 and $400,000.

That is why a less expensive “flat stage” was designed by Banwell Architects.

Putnam said if residents demand to spend that much money on a new stage, other items in the project will have to be cut.

He said most of the work addresses fire, safety and ADA codes as well as requirements from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges to regain accreditation for the school.

“There is not a lot of wiggle room to swap out extras,” he said.

But not everyone believes demolition is a foregone conclusion or that a new stage would cost that much.

“A sprinkler (underneath the stage) would solve a lot of the problem,” said board member Brian Rapp. “I’d like to hear why a sprinkler is not an option.”

Phaedra Lauschance, who has taught community theater for more than 20 years, said she is certain the stage could be refurbished to meet fire codes for a lot less than $400,000.

“It will cost a lot more to do plays elsewhere than to build a new stage,” she said.

There was also criticism of how the committee and School Board handled the issue, claiming there was insufficient notice to the public.

“We are kind of doing this under cover,” Chris Terrell, a parent who is involved in the theater and music programs at the high school, said at the Wednesday afternoon renovation committee meeting. “We need to let the public have a say.”

Terrell said the absence of a stage will be a step backwards for the popular theater arts and band and chorus programs.

Horton was adamant that there are no alternatives to demolition.

“It is a state fire marshal requirement. We are bound to do it,” he said.

The board promised to look at all options and keep the public fully informed.

“We need to know alternatives,” said board member Heather Irish.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at ogrady56@yahoo.com.