Crews had the southern wall of the original Willard School building knocked out and several floors gutted within just a few hours of starting their demolition job Monday.
While excavators tore into the building, which has stood for nearly a century, spectators watched from Crosby Street. Some took pictures with their phones, and one graduate of the alternative high school played guitar over the rumble of engines and crumbling bricks.
The demolition began as soon as classes stopped for the year at the newest building for the Willard Alternative High School Program, constructed in 2018 adjacent to the old building. Workers have until the end of August to level the old building, before students once again begin classes.
Missoula County Public Schools Communications Director Hatton Littman said some of the 144 students who filled the new school building in December still felt a bit of “historical tenderness” for their old facility.
“There have been isolated groups that have said they wished we could have preserved the old building, but we have just as many if not more people saying they’re happy with the new Willard building,” Littman said.
The razing of the Willard building, and the construction of a modern school for its students, are among dozens of projects planned by Missoula County Public Schools as part of its Smart Schools 2020 initiative.
Starting in 2013, teams of parents, students and teachers throughout the county school district spent a year researching the needs of every school building. They compiled the research and sent recommendations to administrators. In November 2015, voters approved an $88 million bond for elementary schools and a $70 million high school bond to meet these recommendations.
“For Willard, their recommendation was to totally start over,” Littman said.
Built in 1922 as an elementary school, the building required millions of dollars in renovations stemming from years of deferred maintenance. According to Littman, the building also lacked a proper library, any kind of athletic space or any real science lab. When students entered the new building, Littman said it was like a whole new world for them, with the two-story building being 3,000 square feet larger and big enough to accommodate 250 students.
Starting in February 2019, crews began abating asbestos in the interior of the closed school building. By April, they had the roof completely torn out. Bricks from the building will be salvaged and circulated into other community projects, while the masonry Willard sign will be preserved and displayed at the entrance to the new building.
Once the demolition is complete, the space will go toward a parking lot, open park space and a basketball court. NorthWestern Energy will also construct a solar fence along the property’s south side as part of a $1 million project to provide solar energy to four of the school district’s high schools.
Brian Jenkins, who lives just across from the school, watched excavators and semi-trucks pick apart the building from his front yard. Jenkins said he voted for the $70 million bond thinking the funds would renovate the old building, not destroy it.
“I see education as an absolute priority, but they’re wiping out the history of education by doing this,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins, who has spoken with MCPS multiple times, said one thing never included in the research for Willard was a feasibility plan to update the old building. He also said that debris peppered his property during the spring abatement, debris he was concerned contained asbestos.
“It’s disappointing to see the building go down because we all invest in this. Nothing’s more paramount than investing in education, but by the time they opened it up for comment, it was too late to go back,” he said.
Jenkins and dozens of others picked up bricks set aside by workers to keep as a memento of the building that will be gone by the end of summer.