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Date of Issue: April 27, 2006

Cortez school all but complete

The old school building in Cortez is within days of being ready for use, rehabilitated from below ground to rooftop. But it’s at least a month from a grand opening.

All that remains are a few odds and ends of construction and Manatee County’s official approval for the building’s occupancy. That will be the occasion for celebration, for it has been a long time in restoration.

Built in 1912 and used in the 1980s and ’90s as the residence and studio of internationally famed fabric weaver Robert Sailors, the county acquired it in 2000 with state help to put it into public use as a community center and museum of the historic fishing village’s life.

Volunteers took the reconstruction as far as they could, removing unwanted parts and readying the interior for the contractor, and more than a year ago TriTech Construction & Design of Bradenton was awarded the rebuilding contract.

TriTech had to start underground, noted the site’s manager for the county, Roger Allen. The floor was in such deplorable condition that workers had to dig out room for footings and piers to support huge beams to keep the floor level once it was jacked up.

The floors were restored in original condition with heart pine, a very hard and increasingly rare wood. The entire floor system had to be replaced in part of the building, victim of roof leaks.

The roof itself was difficult, too, with its supporting system replaced before rebuilding the roof itself. Now about one-third of the roof is new, the rest still in good original condition, Allen said.

There is new plumbing, new electric wiring, new custom-made windows, new exterior doors, new paneling where the original cypress had rotted, a new stage to replace the one damaged by termites, new fire alarm system, and new lighting throughout.

Altogether, the building meets the most stringent standards for safety in storms, Allen said, which may be very handy for Cortezians: It was the shelter of last resort during the hurricanes that devastated the village in 1921 and 1926. "We have photos showing the building surrounded by skiffs that people had rowed there to find shelter," he said.

With the interior all but completed, the exterior comes next for reconstruction. Experts will have to determine whether the stucco can be removed without ruining the original red brick, Allen said. If it can’t be taken off, it will be repaired and the outside will remain stucco instead of brick. 

That part remains to be funded, but the interior is paid for through grants and gifts and, mostly, money R.B. "Chips" Shore has arranged from the county. Shore is a devoted historian and as clerk of the circuit court is responsible for all things historic in the county.

Also to come are moving the historic Burton store to the grounds and restoring it to its 1890s condition to house a classroom and folkways exhibits.

Allen is planning a grand opening for the new old schoolhouse sometime in June or July.