As it will save the Sonora High School District about $20,000 a year, the move makes financial sense.
School trustees in April voted to move the district office from the stately and historic Sonora Dome to a far smaller building on Sonora High’s Shaws Flat Road campus. Nobody challenged the plan, rightfully reasoning that every dollar saved to pay teachers and educate students in this era of limits is justified.
On the downside, the move leaves a landmark Sonora building vacant and locked up for the first time in its 100-year history.
Empty buildings, even landlords would agree, tend to deteriorate over time. It’s not wear that could do the old building in, but neglect.
Among estimated cost savings for the High School District’s move would be money that until now has been spent on the dome’s wooden floors ($3,000 a year) and its 100-year-old galvanized plumbing ($500). Its heater and a limping, 38-year-old air conditioning system will be shut down.
And for the first time in its long life, the dome will not be part of Tuolumne County’s educational landscape.
On the plus side, District Superintendent Mike McCoy promises the district will continue to maintain the old building and, if possible, lease it out for a compatible use.
“We recognize its historic significance in the community,” McCoy said. “Right now we have no agenda for the Dome, but we’re open to suggestions.”
Financed with a $50,000 bond issue passed by Sonora School District voters, the Barretta Street Dome was completed in 1909 and dedicated in cornerstone-laying ceremonies on April 2 of that year.
Headlines trumpeted completion of the new schoolhouse: “HUNDREDS WITNESS PLEASING EVENT,” reported The Tuolumne Independent. “With pride and enthusiasm, Sonora dedicates her magnificent new grammar school building.”
For 58 years, the Dome and surrounding buildings constructed later were home to Sonora Elementary School.
But enrollment grew steadily, then spiked in the 1960s. It hit 738 in 1966, far surpassing campus capacity. The coup de grace came in 1967, when state architects ruled that the Dome didn’t meet seismic standards and could not legally house students.
Portables were installed, double sessions ordered, and in 1969, after several tries, district voters approved a bond issue to build a new, $674,000 campus off the yet-to-be constructed Greenley Road. That school opened in September of 1973, and in ‘74 the elementary school district sold the Barretta complex to Sonora High.
The campus’s earthquake-legal classrooms housed the high school’s continuation and alternative ed programs. The Dome was leased to the Tuolumne County Schools Office until 1982, when the Sonora High District administration took over.
Now McCoy and his staff are moving out, and an eerie silence seems to be settling in.
The next chapter in the Dome’s unfolding story remains unclear.
Seismic improvements costing well over $2 million likely preclude classroom use. Also, the three-story building does not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and installation of an elevator would be prohibitively expensive.
On top of all that, the Dome is virtually without parking, making commercial use problematic and probably illegal under city ordinance.
But there are still avenues to be explored: Use by nonprofit agencies or charities as a kind of mall or clearinghouse. Or perhaps as an arts center, with a series of studios and the still-stunning second floor auditorium for shows and recitals.
Maybe the county’s energetic Economic Development Authority has a plan. Or grants could possibly fund renovation that would transform the Dome into the vibrant community center it was during Sonora Elementary’s heyday.
The Sonora High School District is the building’s current steward and must keep it from the ravages of neglect.
But the Sonora Dome is a community landmark and its future is a community responsibility. The more ideas and energy that go into it, the better that future will be.
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Weekly Arts and entertainment guide for Calaveras and Tuolumne counties