Paris transforms old high school from potential eyesore into an asset – Champaign/Urbana News-Gazette

PARIS, Ill. — Many of the same people who roamed the halls of historic Paris High School now roam them as residents.

The 100-year-old rehabilitated building has been converted to low-income senior housing named Tiger Senior Apartments, after the school’s former mascot.

Landmarks Illinois has taken notice. The group, founded in 1971, calls itself the state’s “leading voice for historic preservation” and has awarded the Paris project the award for Adaptive Reuse.

The effort to save and renovate the stately building started after voters passed a proposal to build a new high school about eight years ago, Paris Mayor Craig Smith said. Smith said he contacted the superintendent of schools and told him, “When you move, we want control of the building.”

The city didn’t want the high school building to turn into a dilapidated shell in the middle of town.

“We had some ideas what we wanted to do with it,” Smith said. “One was affordable housing.”

The city gave the school district 60 acres it owned as a place for the new high school building, and the district deeded the school to the city.

“It was not a slight undertaking on our part,” Smith said. “We had to continue to insure it, maintain it and pay the electric and power bills” while the process was sorted out. “We were looking at six figures to maintain it annually while trying to find the right usage for it.”

The city had a good relationship with the nonprofit Laborers Home Development Corp., which had already built a couple of housing facilities in town. When Smith broached the idea of rehabbing the high school building into housing, the corporation balked. It was used to building new, but eventually warmed to the idea.

“That started the three- to four-year process to get the approval and the investors lined up,” Smith said.

Jayne Lourash of Laborers Home Development said the corporation was able to make it work by securing low-income tax credits through the Illinois Development Authority.

“After we were awarded the low-income tax credit from IDA, we determined the renovation of the building would be more costly than we originally anticipated,” Lourash said. “That’s when we decided to look into adding the federal and state historic tax credits … into our funding list.”

A combination of local government and state government funding and private investments brought the dream into reality.

The renovation process that required the school remain as close to the original as possible was finished at the end of 2020. More than 30 of the 42 units have been filled, and Smith expects full occupancy by the end of the year.

About half of the tenants are Paris High School grads. One is a retired Paris teacher.

“They have a lot of people who come back for their reunions and take a walk down memory lane” to tour their school, Smith said. “The manager loves to give them tours. They’re just floored” by how the old school looks. “Walking down the hallway, (it looks) the same. Because of the historic tax credit, they have to keep the outside the same and the inside pretty much the same.”

Lourash said the building is now fully ADA-accessible and noted the main entrance has been redesigned and an elevator added. The original hardwood floors remain as do some of the original tin ceilings.

Some units have chalkboards “of a historic nature,” and a large round window was uncovered during the renovation.

“Some of the windows are massive in size,” Lourash said. “In one unit, the window would rival a downstate Chicago storefront.”

Studio and one- and two-bedroom units are available. The gym was retained for use as a community space, and the school kitchen is now a community kitchen for potlucks and parties.

Landmarks Illinois President and CEO Bonnie McDonald said LI has helped to save more than 23,000 places such as the Tiger Senior Apartments, identifying development opportunities and providing grants and technical assistance and advocacy resources.

LI was aware of the high school, having previously worked in the community, providing grant money for the 2015 restoration of the Lady of Justice statue atop the Edgar County Courthouse.

Smith said city officials in the city of about 9,000 population “couldn’t be happier” with how the project turned out.

“All the comments from the Illinois Housing Authority is that this is what people get in a large city. They’re literally able to walk to everything they need to.”

The heart center, library, shopping, about everything the residents need is within a few blocks of the old high school.

Added Smith, “We’ve got a big-city feel in a small town.”