Town panel backs demolishing James School for safety complex site in Williamsburg

  • The Helen E. James School, built in 1914 in Williamsburg, is named for a 19th-century philanthropist. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 2/3/2021 3:42:46 PM

WILLIAMSBURG — Plans for a new public safety complex, which are set to be shared with residents in a newsletter by next week, include the demolition of the 106-year-old Helen E. James School to make way for the project.

“The results are bittersweet for pretty much everyone on the committee,” said Jim Ayres, chairman of the Owner’s Project Manager Steering Committee. He noted how much the school, which closed in 2014, means to many townspeople.

The Owner’s Project Manager Steering Committee was formed in 2017 to determine a site for a new public safety complex and the scale for such a building.

Currently, public safety services in Williamsburg operate out of two facilities, at 5 North Main St. in Williamsburg and 16 South Main St. in Haydenville, both of which Ayres said are in poor repair.

The committee determined the town-owned Helen E. James site was the best location for a new public safety building. Voters approved $180,000 at a Special Town Meeting last year to design the complex, plus evaluate the school and its site.

The committee subsequently charged the Northampton architecture firm Juster Pope Frazier with exploring three options: incorporating the school into the public safety complex plans; building the complex on the site and repairing the school; and demolishing the school and building on its footprint.

Before these options were fully evaluated, it was determined the repairs needed to bring the Helen E. James School up to code would cost an estimated $2.1 million.

Incorporating the school into the complex is estimated to cost $7.5 million, while doing the necessary repairs and building a complex on the site is estimated at $6.7 million. Under both of these options, an additional $2.3 million would be needed if the school were to be fully renovated.

The demolition option, on the other hand, was estimated to cost $5.1 million, and it is this option the committee is recommending.

“We frankly think they’re more than the town can afford,” Ayres said of the costs associated with repairing the school.

Voters at another Special Town Meeting, which is set to take place outdoors April 3, will be asked to choose one of the three options and to fund the project, Ayres said. For all three versions, the committee is recommending that $1 million of Stabilization Account funds be used and that the rest would be borrowed.

If Town Meeting authorizes borrowing for the complex, it would then have to be approved at an election.

Ayres said the article requesting funds for the new complex has yet to be written. Before the Special Town Meeting, the committee will be holding web-based conversations and setting up tables to get in-person input from the public.

“What we wanted to allow is time for conversation and education and feedback from people in the town,” he said.

Ayres said the public will get to weigh in on the design and appearance of the building. He also noted the complex being considered is a lot smaller than previous iterations.

“This building was intentionally designed to be as modest as possible,” Ayres said.

Town Administrator Charlene Nardi, who attended the Helen E. James School for elementary school, praised the work of the committee.

“The town has been looking at this issue for well on a decade,” Nardi said. “It’s time to move forward.”

Nardi acknowledged that the building means a lot to many people. At the same time, she doesn’t think it would do the legacy of Helen E. James justice to keep a building around that no longer serves the needs of the community, and that there are other ways to honor and remember the 19th-century Williamsburg philanthropist.

The building ceased operation as a high school in 1971, and as an elementary school in 2014.

Ayres said the town is looking to move on the project quickly to take advantage of a positive bidding environment, with the goal of beginning construction before next winter.

“We’re a cost-conscious community,” Nardi said. “We would like to save the town as much money as possible.”

Bera Dunau can be reached at


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