Progress: Salute To Murray

April 4, 2012

‘From the cliffs of old Cohutta’

Murray’s historic Rock Building restored to its original glory

(Continued)

The drive for renovation

Many times, history enthusiasts approached the Murray County Board of Education, beginning in 1986, asking that the building be repaired and used.

It pained those who loved the building to see it so far from its original beauty. The original Murray County High School campus was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004, but still nothing was done to renovate the Rock Building.

As the economy began to fail, board members said they simply did not have the funds to put into the building.

A committee was formed in the early part of this century to help raise funds for the building’s renovation. The committee raised the money to replace the roof, which was most critical to repairing the building. Replacing the roof would prevent further deterioration to the interior. The exterior rock walls still stood strong, but the interior needed a lot of work.

Committee members worked for two years to raise the $100,000 needed to place a new roof on the building. In 2007, it was installed using state Department of Corrections inmates for labor.

For many, it finally looked like progress was being made on the Rock Building.

The fire

On Sept. 26, 2009, dozens gathered in nearby parking lots to watch as their beloved alma mater nearly burned to the ground. It was pouring rain and had been storming earlier that morning. The rain may have helped prevent the fire from spreading to the adjacent building, which was then housing North Murray High School, but it did nothing to save the Rock Building.

“It was sad because it took memories away,” Brackett said. “I thought about everybody (that day). It was sad.”

The fire was determined to have been started by a lightning strike just before 11 a.m. The fire had begun but hadn’t progressed enough to be noticeable until several hours later. By 2 p.m. black smoke was rising high into the sky, visible from much of Chatsworth.

The fire began near the back of the building and moved forward. People stood shocked, calling others on cellphones, snapping photos and taking video. Firefighters, many of whom attended classes in the building, tried to salvage it.

Initial reports were that the building would have to be demolished. It had been completely gutted. Only the rock walls still stood, and some of them had been damaged.

The decision to rebuild

Taylor said she hated to hear that the building had burned, but the saddest part to her was knowing that so many people had recently donated money for its renovation.

Some said they wanted the building bulldozed and a memorial using the building’s rock walls placed there.

Swilling, whose class of 1960 had raised thousands of dollars for the roof, said she immediately hoped board members would decide to rebuild it.

“As soon as it burned, I wanted to see it rebuilt,” she said. “I said if it can be restored, I wanted to see it restored.”

She wanted to see it rebuilt because of “nostalgia as much as anything. The rest of it was just practical as a taxpayer” to use insurance money for the renovation.

Engineering studies were done. Conflicting reports came out, some saying the walls were structurally sound, others saying they weren’t.

The school system carried full insurance on the building. Restoring it meant they would be given approximately $1.7 million. Bulldozing it meant they would be given less than $1 million.

After several public hearings and much discussion, the decision was made to go forward with plans to rebuild the Rock Building and use it as a central office. The building housing the central office was becoming cramped and expansion had been discussed.

“We were just thrilled it wasn’t going to sit there and rot,” Swilling said, speaking for her graduating class. “We just wanted it to look nice.”

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Progress: Salute To Murray
  • rock building1.jpg ‘From the cliffs of old Cohutta’

    Helen Taylor was a bit frightened, but still very excited to be entering Murray County High School.

    April 4, 2012 5 Photos

  • P-logging story mlh.jpg ‘Pretty hard work’

    Buford Witherow said his father told him he saw the remnant of a huge tree cut down some 70 to 80 years ago in the logging days of what is now the Cohutta Wilderness Area that defied imagination.

    April 4, 2012 4 Photos

  • wright hotel:depot2.jpg The Wright Hotel

    Chatsworth has the distinction of being Murray County’s youngest, largest and only “planned” city.

    April 4, 2012 5 Photos