Thursday, April 25, 1996
Time for a world-class act at SCPA

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Did you really mean it, movers and shakers of Cincinnati? Did you mean it when you said spending money on football and baseball proves we're a big league city? Do you really think the city is worth saving? Does your personnel department need something to brag about to recruits from New York who still think the streets here aren't paved?

You didn't just say these things so taxpayers would buy you a couple of stadiums, did you?

How about you, fellow taxpayers, you do believe in integrated schools, don't you? And public education? And the arts?

Good. Then let's save SCPA. It is all those things. And more.

Last Thursday, an arsonist set fire to the auditorium at the School for the Creative and Performing Arts on Sycamore at 13th Street, doing about $1 million damage. ''The auditorium,'' says Jermel Gaither, a 10th-grade music theater student from College Hill, ''is the heart of the school.''

It also is the heart of the problem. It will cost $1 million to rebuild, just as it was. And it wasn't good enough. In 1993, the city's most highly regarded planning and architecture design firm for educational facilities was asked to study the building. Steed Hammond Paul found it would cost between $12 million and $13 million to renovate the existing building and $22 million to build a new one.

''It became obvious,'' says Gerry Hammond, the firm's president, ''that the existing theater was seen as a big problem.'' Besides its size - 550 seats - the auditorium needs attached practice rooms and other improvements to make it really suit the needs of a school for theater and the arts. Both estimates include a new 1,200-seat auditorium, as well as a smaller ''black box'' theater.

Ruel Thompson, a senior from Mt. Healthy, says it's nice that ''we get to use the Aronoff Center for a while. But they've got to fix this building. It's special.''

Inell Nash of Madeira, retired from Procter & Gamble, says it was special back in the days when it was Woodward High School, named for William Woodward, a surveyor, who made a fortune through real estate and marriage to Abigail Cutter.

The original Woodward building was replaced in 1854 and again in 1910. It's five stories and 150 rooms with brick arches and stone finials and capitals. Inside it is lovely and irreplaceable. Marble. Stained glass. Brass.

After Woodward High School moved to Bond Hill in 1953, the school became Abigail Cutter Junior High. Then in 1977, the neighborhood school closed, and SCPA filled the building with kids of all colors from all over the city.

''I love this school, this building.'' Ms. Nash says. ''Maybe if they'd contact former students, they'd get the money.''

Maybe.

But this school isn't just about its alumni. This is the school that everybody brags about, along with Walnut Hills, when they talk about the public school system here. This is the school with the glitter - the terrific band, the mimes, the actors, the singers, the artists. These kids, by the way, have some of the highest test scores in the district.

In 1991, SCPA was one of five school buildings a Cincinnati Business Committee recommended the district abandon, saying the structure was too old and costly. Yipe. I hope these guys don't get a look at Music Hall.

This school is worth the trouble to fix. It makes just as much sense as new stadiums and Fountain Place and tax abatements to get a P&G plant. And it needs to be right where it is, an urban school in the heart of Over-the-Rhine.

Remember when the stadium tax group took people on a tour of Riverfront Stadium to prove that it was just too dreadful to tolerate?

One woman said it must be demoralizing for football players to have to change clothes in a dingy locker room. Imagine how demoralizing it must be to practice in a hallway, then run down the street for a performance.

Maybe this is our chance to spiff up the whole place. C'mon. Let's save SCPA. In fact, let's give it the building it deserves.

Laura Pulfer's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU-FM (91.7 MHz) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.