COMMENTARY: Should Have Torn Down Old School


April 21, 2014

As a new resident, I’ve been impressed by the town’s dedication to preserving its past. I love that Cape Charles has a “historic” designation, and I admire residents and leaders steadfast about preserving its quaintness and personality.

In the town’s zeal to protect its legacy, however, I fear some have lost perspective about what’s worth preserving. The lines between “historic’’ and “nostalgic’’ have become fuzzy.

I live near Central Park and enjoy my strolls there and hearing the kids playing, the fountain flowing, seeing residents walking pets, pushing baby strollers, playing soccer. Like its beautiful old buildings, the park defines Cape Charles. It’s where we gather, recreate and bond. The beach and park unifies us, as much as our local pubs and churches and shops.

With that in mind, I have been head-scratching about the old school. Frankly, I was stunned by the rancor swirling in such an otherwise civil and thoughtful community. The accusations, lawsuits and bitterness seem shockingly out of character. There’s nothing quaint about bitterness.

I keep asking myself, “all of this fighting over what?’’ A dilapidated building that, in my view, is ugly. Yes, the old school building is an eyesore to no less an extent than the old supermarket by the harbor that, hopefully, will soon be razed and replaced with at least some open space.

The school obviously has nostalgic appeal to some. But it’s not “historic’’ and seems devoid of architectural splendor. Not everything old deserves to be protected. The school building was a tool; its purpose served.

One solution to the school quandary could have been just tearing the old girl down. The town could have preserved the site and enhanced wonderful Central Park with some basketball courts for the kids, or maybe a few more tennis courts or benches, or swing sets. Wouldn’t that have been a fitting legacy for the school site? Kids enjoying the old playground? Perhaps that was an option discussed and discarded.


The town can’t afford a community center; our population and tax base aren’t large enough to justify one. I get that, and I agree with the town’s decision to be fiscally prudent.

But do we really want condos on our park? Isn’t the real value of the old school the property it sits on? Wouldn’t turning that site into public space benefit the town and bolster its quaintness more than a bunch of closet-sized condos?

The site is sold and its fate now seems sealed. I fear the town has missed an opportunity. Perhaps the developer can be prevailed upon to relinquish his claim. Perhaps not.

Either way, I sincerely hope that next month we elect candidates with the capacity and emotional maturity to gracefully explore and embrace new ideas, and the self confidence to refrain from acrimony.

Submissions to COMMENTARY are welcome on any subject relevant to Cape Charles. Opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily of this publication.



8 Responses to “COMMENTARY: Should Have Torn Down Old School”

  1. Sandy Mayer on April 21st, 2014 1:59 am

    I am not sure of this but I think that tearing down the old school and removing it was an incredibly expensive proposition.

  2. Daniel Burke on April 21st, 2014 11:36 am

    I’ve supervised the removal of some very large buildings in Baltimore City. In most cases the main factor that drives cost is access. To an experienced demo outfit the old school would have been an easy, relatively small job. There were some scare tactics used concerning asbestos. All old structures contain asbestos and it is just another routine part of the removal process. There were a group of us who wanted the school removed and made part of the park. It would have been a one-time fixed cost. But we were shouted down and greed and hate prevailed.

  3. Gabriel Southern on April 21st, 2014 1:19 pm

    “The town can’t afford a community center; our population and tax base aren’t large enough to justify one. I get that, and I agree with the town’s decision to be fiscally prudent.”

    Yet the town could afford a $20 million wastewater treatment plant. The town is more than $10 million in debt, and less than six months ago voted to borrow $1 million more. How much would a community center really cost? It seems like the sale of the school (for $10) has little to do with fiscal prudence and a lot to do with political priorities.

  4. Wayne Creed on April 21st, 2014 2:33 pm

    Nothing sums up the vulgarity of the ‘New Cape Charles’ more than this letter. The thesis at first left me dumbfounded, but I have since recovered enough to respond.

    “A dilapidated building that, in my view, is ugly.” Obviously, this guy just got off the bus. According to the latest assessment and inspection by the developer himself, the building is hardly dilapidated, and is actually in incredible shape (one walk through the halls would tell you that). Ugly? Now if, Stieglitz or Edward Hopper were to come to paint or photograph this town, where would the Precisionist eye go? The delicate Shanty? The harbor? Bay Creek? The grotesque and heinous fountain? No dude, they would go to the industrial sections, the structures that cherished working men, like the old school.

    “it’s not “historic’’ and seems devoid of architectural splendor”. The school is 100 years old, and contains the oldest stage on the Eastern Shore. If it’s not historic, someone needs to tell DHR who is about to grant millions of dollars in ‘Historic’ tax credits for the renovations. Not sure what he considers architectural splendor, but I’d recommend he take a ride up to Red Hook and see the Domino Sugar Refinery, the Eberhard Faber Pencil Factory, and Dumbo–preservation does not just serve nostalgia, but has tangible economic and environmental benefits (i.e. construction, adaptive re-use, reducing the waste from demolition etc.).

    “just tearing the old girl down.” You just can’t tear it down, just because you feel like it, because, it’s well, HISTORIC. From a state and federal government perspective, the policy for historic structures is “low cost, low maintenance adaptive reuse.” The EPA and DEQ would also frown upon it, noting “the greenest building is one you don’t send to a landfill ” Ugly to some, but its design harkens back to all historically significant industrial sites, structures, artifacts, and technology–preserving it preserves our industrial and technological past (yes, the Shore does have one). Maintaining that building in its historically relevant state summons one term, “archaeology”. Those who are from here, that understand the history of this place, have a principal concern with the physical evidence of all artifacts, preservation of historically significant sites, structures, buildings, industrial processes, even bridges, railroads, and communities.

    “The town can’t afford a community center; our population and tax base aren’t large enough to justify one. I get that, and I agree with the town’s decision to be fiscally prudent.” Did he just use ‘the town’ and ‘fiscally prudent’ in the same sentence? Oh, my. After the ride to Red Hook, I would also recommend a drive to the old Onancock School, and review that model. That is the same model Old School Cape Charles was going to use to renovate and open the school.

    To be fair, I do agree that with him that Section 8, low income workforce housing is not appropriate in the park. Especially when those 65 cars, with no off street parking, have to start lining up all around it.

    As cloying as this letter is, I have to thank Mr. Coccaro for penning it, for nothing sums up the divide in this town more than this. The schism between the old, real Cape Charles, those that want to preserve the Town’s actual historical character and significance and the new, quaint, faux Cape Charles, those that want to destroy history, and re-create the town in their own suburban, nightmarish image, is too wide to be closed by any election (it also helps explain the large vats of Proto Kool Aid being devoured by our delicate citizens), and the wounds are too deep for any immediate grace or reconciliation. For now, I would learn to embrace the acrimony. Welcome to Cape Charles.

  5. Kearn Schemm on April 21st, 2014 6:02 pm

    I think Joe Coccaro was right to say the obvious: the Old School is ugly. Indeed, it is, at present, very ugly. It is still historic and should be recycled for use by the community, not torn down or mutilated into apartments. Much of what is ugly about it (the fake stone) is not part of the original structure. If restored, I am sure it would be presentable and add to the historic feeling of the town.

  6. Deborah Bender on April 21st, 2014 7:23 pm

    Mr. Coccaro, if you knew the history, you would be on the side of the old school. Ugly and in bad shape? The Town of Cape Charles broke their own code by performing no upkeep on the building. Council member Joan Natali has claimed that the town spent $30,000 on upkeep during her time on Town Council. But a FOIA request revealed that the actual expense was $600. Ms. Natali also called out, “Don’t answer that” at a Council meeting when Councilman Frank Wendell asked which direction the school faces. The reason she didn’t want anyone to answer the question is that the developer, J. David McCormack, wants to put a parking lot in the front of the school, which is against the rules for an historic building. He claims that the side of the building (which has no door) is actually the front.

  7. Joe Vaccaro on April 22nd, 2014 12:46 pm

    Someone just brought this article to my attention. For the record, I have written in the Wave before but I’m V-A-C-C-A-R-O not COCCARO. Hopefully this will stop the calls!

    Yes — to repeat: the above commentary is by JOE COCCARO, who, as he states in the first sentence, is a “new resident.” Joe Coccaro (his real name) lives near Central Park. The Wave regrets any confusion with longtime resident and former town manager Joe Vaccaro. –EDITOR

  8. Daniel Morgan on April 23rd, 2014 6:12 pm

    The Eastern Shore would be a better place if the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel were never built. The school is the least of Cape Charles’s problems.