New life for an old building

ALPHA — The iconic school that has anchored the Village of Alpha’s historic circle for a century is being spared from demolition.

Joe and Anne Novitsky of Berkley, Mich., recently took ownership of the Porter School.

The New Porter LLC formed with the intent to bring life back to the 100-year-old complex so it can continue to benefit Alpha as well as all of Iron County.

The Porter School was built in 1914 at the top of the hill on County Road 424, as it was planned around the Alpha Mine. The gym was added later and used by the community for years.

The downstate couple respects the significance the school and gym have had in the history and identity of Alpha, and are among the many who share special memories.

The former Anne Johnson grew up in Crystal Falls and attended middle school in Alpha. “The bus rides at sunrise were fabulous,” she recalled.

The Class of 1967 was the last to graduate from Porter School. After the county consolidated the districts in 1968, the Alpha School was used for middle school students until the new high school was built in Crystal Falls, she noted.

“It’s such a unique place — it really is small, yet so well laid out and thoughtfully built,” Anne Novitsky said. “People loved going to school there.”

In 1976, the couple hosted their wedding reception in the gym. At that time, the school had been closed for several years and the building used as a community center.

Now 47 years later, and with years of architectural experience with their own practice, JSN Architecture in Berkley, a suburb of Detroit, they are prepared to tackle restoration of the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“It’s a complex project, but we have a detailed timeline,” Joe Novitsky said. “It will be a minimum of three, but a more realistic plan is four years — five on the outside, if we run into problems, including the weather.”

With his 35 years in the architect business, Novitsky knows it will not be a “quick fix” but feels confident the historical structure can be saved.

Several private investors who opened a cafe, restaurant or other businesses in the building over the years did some renovations but mostly to the gym.

“Now the condition of the school went backwards — it’s deteriorating,” Anne Novitsky said. “It got to be too much for one person to try to do — it’s been waiting for someone to do it again.”

JSN Architecture has begun to draft plans for each facility. The restoration focuses on repairing the gym and kitchen to be used once again as a community center and converting the school into apartments.

One of the challenges they faced in the design process was creating a barrier-free entrance without destroying the historic look.

“The good news is I think we have it figured out,” he said.

The gym building on to the west of the school is about 1,800 to 2,200 square feet and includes a kitchen and locker rooms.

“It can easily accommodate a couple hundred people for community events,” she said. “We need to revitalize it, as there isn’t any other facility — it’s an asset.”

The school features 17 to 20 classrooms that will be converted into 14 to 18 apartments.

“From what I see now, we can’t get it done fast enough,” said Joe Novitsky, in regards to the housing issues.

“The view from that school is beautiful,” Anne Novitsky added.

However, they are still unsure of plans for the lower-level space, as they may open those up for community use as well.

With the help of their hired building superintendent, Danny Fitzpatrick, work has started.

Due to vandalism done after it was abandoned, they needed to secure the building.

Because of the years of neglect, Fitzpatrick also needed to temporarily repair the roof over the gym and kitchen area.

They are grateful for his assistance, as he’s enabled them to keep moving forward. “We are going to take it one step at a time,” Joe Novitsky said.

“Improvements are slowly happening,” Anne Novitsky added.

First item on the agenda this spring was to start by removing massive amounts of debris, including everything that was left from hosting haunted house events about six years ago.

“It’s a wreck — it’s shocking what they left,” he said.

The building is without electricity as well, though they hope to soon be able to get power turned on in a “safe room” that will also give them access to water.

“With the weather, the building is currently too cold to do a lot of work,” Joe Novitsky said.

But he is confident the structure is sound, as he has always strongly believed in revitalizing, not demolishing.

“There’s a lot we don’t know yet until we get in there,” Anne Novitsky said.

This summer they will inspect the water, sewer and septic system. Work will also continue to repair the roof, along with repurposing or replacing the windows to secure them before winter.

Over the winter, they will continue to secure bids for construction.

The Novitskys hope to have their 50th wedding anniversary party in the gym in a couple of years.

“It’s about saving the historical landmark and facility for the community,” Joe Novitsky said.

“We want more people to have memories,” Anne Novitsky added.

The couple credits their daughter, Lydia, who is head brewer at the Alpha Brewing Co., for getting them engaged in the project. Lydia worked in the family firm for 17 years and is very fluent in the architect business and construction industry.

She notified them about possible plans to demolish the building.

“Lydia asked if we can save it and I said, ‘Of course we can.’ So we started the course,” he said.

The frequent visitors expressed how heartbreaking it was watching the school fall apart over the years.

“The funny thing is, every time Joe looked at it, he would say, ‘I think I could fix that — I don’t think it’s gone yet,'” she said.

The couple wants to honor what the former owners of the school started, as well as the Alpha Brewery Co., saying it’s because of their efforts there’s still an Alpha today.

“The school is Alpha. The idea it might now persist into the future was really troubling,” she said.

An open house for the community is being planned. They hope to be able to invite the public in May, but it depends on the weather as well as having a clear walkway.

They encourage local residents to send suggestions they may have for the gym or school to newporterllc@yahoo.com.

“The people who will use it should decide what to use it for,” they said.

The historic people in Michigan have been incredibly supportive as well, Joe Novitsky said.

The couple also expressed appreciation to everyone who has shared their gratitude as they take this leap.

“It’s heartwarming,” Joe Novitsky said.

“We are going to give it our best shot, as it deserves it,” Anne Novitsky said.

For updates on the school and the open house, go to the New Porter LLC page on Facebook.


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