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Protecting and preserving Fox Elementary: How soon can the building be stabilized?

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Posted at 8:34 PM, Mar 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-15 20:34:20-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- As a self-proclaimed "Fan guy," Eliot Clark feels a strong connection to William Fox Elementary School.

“If you can walk around that building without shedding a tear, then you're just not a Fan person," Clark said.

Clark, a Fox alumnus, lives across the street from the school he grew up in as a child.

“This is a building that's been a cornerstone in this neighborhood and in the life of a lot of people," he said.

Now, Clark owns Stonewall Construction which specializes in historic preservation. A majority of his work, he said, takes place in Richmond's Fan District. He said the fact that much of the building still stands after a massive blaze on February 11 is a testimony to Fox's strength.

“If you look at the structure, yes, there was a fire, but if you look really closely, none of the bricks have moved, the chimneys haven't moved," he said. "It's a very strong building."

Clark explained when Fox was built more than a century ago, crews used materials that are no longer financially feasible for modern-day construction. For instance, he said the ceiling joists were cut from trees that grew uninterrupted in North America for hundreds of years.

“They're significantly stronger than lumber we would get today," he said. "And the scale that they were building with the methods they were using 110 years ago was based on mass.”

That's part of the reason he supports a renovation of Fox instead of a full rebuild.

“I would suspect that you would probably be able to pull away with about 70% of the actual structure," he said.

In order for renovations to begin, a couple of things have to happen including approval from the Richmond School Board.

Representative Jonathan Young said the board could hold a vote as soon as this coming Friday, and he anticipates his colleagues will support the renovation.

“We’re interested in proceeding most expeditiously relevant to protecting what's left of the facility," Young said. "The truth is that we don't build structures like we used to, and that grand old building was built to last."

Then, the building must be stabilized which would ensure it's safe for people like insurance investigators to go inside without being escorted by firefighters. Stabilization would also aim to prevent a possible collapse.

However, Young said the school district has been waiting for fire investigators to finish collecting evidence before stabilization can be put in motion.

“Before bringing in heavy equipment, fire investigators had to do their due diligence," he said. "They've been in there for a month. I think by now we can proceed with the next steps.”

“Stabilization is the first domino and a series of dominoes," said Richmond Public Schools (RPS) spokesperson, Sarah Abubaker.

After stabilization, she explained RPS can take steps to preserve the historic building. That could include putting up a temporary roof or cover as some of the school remains exposed to the elements.

"Covering the roof and protecting the inside of the Fox building from further damage is still one of our top priorities," Abubaker said. "However, it still requires that the building be stabilized before anything else is done. This isn't somebody's shed out in their backyard or even somebody's home."

Abubaker said the city will determine when RPS can move forward with stabilization, but first, RPS must submit the required building permits for the city to approve. RPS aims to submit those permits by March 31st.

She explained the insurance company will cover all costs associated with stabilization and that it has already identified a contractor.

Clark believes a combination of renovating and modernizing Fox will allow it to serve multiple generations of students to come.

"You'd be breathing life into a building that could easily take on another 100 or 150 years of service," he said.

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