BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — When the Roach family moved to Albon Road in 1974, it was just in time for two of the five girls – Amy and Rebecca – to attend a brand new Monclova Primary School building.
But the old school, built in 1912 with a 1927 addition, held an allure for Amy and her sisters as it sat empty and decaying for the next 23 years.
“The courtyard was barricaded, but we were rotten little kids,” Amy Clark laughed. “We would push it open and go hide in there, especially this time of year, when there would be bats flying around. It was our secret hiding place.”
That allure was still there in 1997, when Amy and her father, Frank Roach, gathered a group of Monclova Township residents and friends around her kitchen table to pitch an idea: Raise funds and recruit volunteers to transform the old building into a vibrant community center for all ages.
“It was getting together the right people at the right time, and a lot of work from the community,” said Roger Lemle, as he walked through the hallway of the Monclova Community Center last month.
On Thursday, November 3, Roger and his wife Karen, who is the current Monclova Historical Foundation board president, will be among the MHF supporters to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the center, which now draws in thousands of guests each year for weddings, meetings, lessons and businesses.
Amy remembers the day they first toured the entire building.
“It felt like being in the Titanic . . . under water. Everything was boarded up and there was stuff flying through the air. It was scary,” she said.
The West Wing was in decent shape compared to the addition, which had a flat roof that had leaked, sending water cascading into the classrooms, warping all of the hardwood maple floors and causing bricks on the back to fall off, exposing the interior to the elements.
Tearing down the building, which is owned by the township, was considered as an option, but to do so would have meant rebuilding to current zoning codes – and losing an architectural beauty, Amy said.
“It is a brick fortress and a piece of history,” she said. “My dad was really passionate about it – and he had a way of getting other people passionate about things.”
Frank had an extensive background in real estate and construction. Bruce Wetzel, one of the first board members, had renovated many buildings and had his realtor’s license. Willard Schaller – who had attended the old Monclova School and was part of the district’s consolidation in 1950 – had connections in the community and joined Wetzel and Frank in making a sizable donation toward the estimated $330,000 cost.
“Frank was a mover and shaker. He’s the one that got things started,” Wetzel recalled. “We made it work together.”
With a plan in place, the team recruited anyone – skilled or unskilled – from the community to join in on work parties. The Schaller Banquet Hall, which now holds up to 162 people, was once three separate classrooms. Teams took sledgehammers and knocked out the interior brick walls. In the Ottawa Room and Metzger Room, made for groups of up to 48 people, the cloak rooms were removed. Plasterers, carpenters, electricians and plumbers were coerced into helping make repairs.
On the East Wing, a sloped roof replaced the flat one, to better match the roofline of the original school. All new windows were added throughout the building, and the floors were replaced or refinished. Painting parties were a norm for many months.
Randy Swope donated hours of electrical work for many years, and his wife Deb was always there to help out. Kevin and Sheila Bernhard were there from the start, helping with events and renovations.
“This was a lot of donated time and supplies,” Roger said. “We’d get a drywaller because his wife goaded him into it. My neighbor was a commercial carpenter. We called in a lot of favors.”
The old blackboards were donated to the Metroparks to use in the Wildwood Metropark schoolhouse in exchange for engineering work.
In the kitchen, crews found a stash of old glass chemistry bottles that now sit inside the Principal’s Office Room. The kitchen was outfitted with equipment donated by an automotive company that was going out of business.
The costliest aspects were updating the fire and security alarms and electrical systems and putting in separate furnaces on each floor. Installing a parking lot meant tearing out large trees that lifelong resident Ralph Zwyer had remembered planting as a kid.
The Zwyers were among several multigenerational township families that joined in on the cause. Other families included the Strayers, Gases, Hohlbeins, Kunses and Ryans. Soon, however, the entire community was on board, thanks in part to two legendary Halloween events.
The first haunted house had organizations and neighborhoods sponsoring rooms to decorate and staff. Stacy Owen, Bruce’s daughter, was a high school student that year, and she spent hours painting spooky black trees on the wall of the gymnasium. Another group lined a basement hallway with gravel and railroad ties and placed a searchlight and locomotive engine sound inside, spooking visitors into thinking they were about to be hit by a train, Bruce recalled.
“We started in the basement and led guided tours,” Roger said. “The place was too big, and people would get lost. We could take them in the courtyard, and it was so dark because of all the vines, and they didn’t even know they were outside except that it was raining.”
That first fundraiser netted over $12,000 and inspired the team to host an even larger haunted house the next year.
Duane Hohlbein brought in hog heads and a lightbulb to make a butcher shop in the basement. Another team of teenagers hid in a crock and grabbed at guests’ ankles. Others dressed as trees and emerged from alongside the walls.
“It was scary,” Roger said.
Yet the community was enthralled, and the queue waiting to get in was so long that a stage was set up for musical entertainment, led by Joanie Shugarman and Amy, who were lip-syncing to popular music. And then Katie Holmes – a Toledo actor whose film debut was in 1998 – arrived.
“She came with a group of high school friends. She had a hard time going anyplace where she wasn’t recognized, so we let them do karaoke while we were cleaning up,” Amy said. “It was a safe place for them to hang out.”
In all, that second haunted house raised over $26,000 toward the project – and brought the community together, Roger said.
In 1999, the center opened its doors and had its first function in the West Wing, with hundreds of events to follow over the years: weekly cards for senior citizens, hundreds of meetings, luncheons, holiday events and weddings. The YMCA Child Care and the Lucas County Sheriff’s Office substation were the first tenants in the East Wing, which is now home to artists, dance studios, a Mary Kay training center and other small businesses.
“We always thought the center would be busy,” Amy said. “We knew the farmland would be developed and the area would grow. We’re in a bedroom community. We’ve seen so many people going in and out with celebrations and clubs. It’s an intergenerational center.”
The township has generously supported the center, paying for utilities and renovations each year. During the past few years, the center has no longer needed to rely on the township to help pay for utilities.
The township is currently considering the installation of a sanitary sewer line between Coder Road and Albon Road along Monclova Road. This will enable the Monclova Community Center to continue renovating the building and utilize the basement. Because the building is on a leach field, expanding capacity means a need to expand the leach field – but there isn’t room. A sanitary sewer hookup would solve that problem, Roger said.
Over the years, many more improvements have taken place in the center, including the installation of an elevator that makes the building handicapped-accessible. In the lobby to the elevator hangs a large window with a photo of the first board members: Amy, president; Frank, vice president; William Vaughan, treasurer; Chris Abbey, secretary; and board members Kelleigh Nolder, Willard Schaller, Barbara Spencer and Bruce Wetzel. Dozens of other names fill the frame, listing those who contributed time and money toward a project that was truly a community effort.
Many of those contributors are expected to be on hand during the November 3 dinner – a celebration of a quarter-century and a vision that came to fruition.
The Monclova Comm-unity Center is located at 8115 Monclova Rd.