Exterior demolition begins at Erie’s former Roosevelt Middle School.

Chastity Fabry

Ed Palattella
 
| Erie Times-News

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John Lipchik graduated from Roosevelt Middle School in 1957.

More than six decades later, he is helping to tear it down.

Lipchik, 78, the longtime Erie demolition expert, is a consultant on the razing of Roosevelt — a project that has advanced to the dismantling of the exterior of the 98-year-old building at West 23rd and Cranberry streets.

Lipchik marveled at how much the fixtures and other features inside the building had changed since he graduated from Roosevelt when he was 15.

“It’s not like it was when I was there,” he said.

He spoke Monday at the site where Empire Excavation & Demolition, of Waterford, which bought John M. Lipchik Demolition a year ago, is about a month into the $379,000 demolition job for the Erie School District.

Lipchik is staying on as a consultant with Empire for two years. He was at Roosevelt to advise Empire’s owner, Dave Weschler, on how to take apart a 99,000-square-foot edifice made of brick and concrete.

Weschler, 37, was using a backhoe to remove the roof and supporting infrastructure from the north side of Roosevelt.

“The hardest part of the job is the cleanup,” Lipchik said.

As the rubble piled up, Weschler and his crew separated the scrap metal, which Empire can sell, from the concrete and the other debris that Empire must get hauled away. Weschler was engaged in the difficult task, as Lipchik explained it — cleaning up by winnowing the treasures from the trash.

“The less that has to go to the landfill, the better,” Lipchik said.

The Erie School Board awarded the bid for the demolition to Empire on June 30. After another company removed the asbestos, Weschler and his crew started deconstructing Roosevelt in late September.

The crew first took apart the interior of the building before moving to the exterior late last week. The Erie School District before then scoured the building for valuables, such as decorative tiles that surrounded the drinking fountains, and 200 lockers that went to Erie High School. 

The deadline for the complete demolition of Roosevelt and the grading and seeding of the 3.58-acre site is Dec. 31. The Erie School District is negotiating a deal for a prospective buyer to purchase the lot, which is subdivided from nearby Ainsworth Field. The district will continue to own that property.

Weschler said the demolition remains on schedule.

“Better than expected,” he said of the job.

BID AWARDED: Date set for demolition of Erie’s Roosevelt School

FUTURE OF THE SITE: Erie School District negotiating deal to sell Roosevelt land as school demolition proceeds

HISTORY NEXT DOOR: Roosevelt School makes last stand in Ainsworth Field’s outfield

The Erie School District is pleased with how the project is proceeding, said Neal Brokman, the district’s executive director of operations. The district has received complaints about litter around the fenced-in site, but the demolition crew was picking up paper on Monday.

“They went through the interior of the building really quickly,” Brokman said of Empire. “There have been some issues with debris, but we are tearing down a 100-year-old building.”

A lot of the how-to for the tear-down is coming from Lipchik, who also goes by “Jack.” He helped develop the demolition plan, including starting from Roosevelt’s north side and working the way around the building.

“I’m all about listening to Jack,” Weschler said.

OPINION: Roosevelt demo a chance to fulfill century-old promise

REMINISCING: Alumni visit Erie’s Roosevelt before demolition

OPINION: Remembering Roosevelt on eve of destruction

Lipchik has plenty of stories about demolishing buildings throughout Erie County. One of them was the original East High School, built in 1919. It came down in 2003, four years after the new East High, now East Middle School, opened nearby on Wayne Park.

The Erie School District is tearing down Roosevelt Middle School to get rid of it rather than replace it. The district closed the school in 2007 due to declining enrollment and its dilapidated condition. Erie schools Superintendent Brian Polito has made shedding unused school buildings a priority, as recommended in the school district’s state-mandated financial improvement plan.

The school district determined that renovating Roosevelt would cost about $30 million, based on a 2008 study of the building by the nonprofit Preservation Pennsylvania, which recommended restoring it. The study said Roosevelt, named after President Theodore Roosevelt, was last renovated in 1975.

Lipchik agreed that renovating Roosevelt would have been too costly. “They did the right thing by tearing this down,” he said.

Roosevelt continues to have its fans. Neighbors and alumni have stopped by asking about getting bricks, which the Erie School District said it is considering selling as a fundraiser through its nonprofit foundation.

PIECES OF PAST: Erie School District looks at selling Roosevelt bricks

Roosevelt alumni in August staged a photo-op in front of the school. And on Wednesday, another group of alumni plans to meet at the building at 4:30 p.m. and remember their years as “Teddies,” after the school’s namesake. Coleen Tupek Jennings, 56, organized Wednesday’s event and wrote about it on Facebook.

“We are just going to reminisce,” Jennings said.

Jennings, who graduated from Roosevelt in 1977 and then Strong Vincent High School, lives in the neighborhood around Roosevelt. She said she understands why the school district is demolishing the school, but said she and her friends are still downcast about seeing it go.

“It is kind of sad to see the school deteriorate as it has,” Jennings said. “We went there. It was a nice school.”

After graduating from Roosevelt, John Lipchik also graduated from Strong Vincent High School, now Strong Vincent Middle School. He later built his his career in demolition.

In his semi-retirement, he has returned to Roosevelt to help oversee its demise. The school’s outside still featured the same stately facade, even if the inside was different than how Lipchik remembered it.

“It just didn’t seem like the same school,” he said.

Contact Ed Palattella at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ETNpalattella.

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