- Associated Press - Saturday, November 3, 2018

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - It’s like a giant puzzle.

An approximately 4,000-piece limestone puzzle that involves cranes, labeling, assistance from an engineer in Indiana and careful planning to fit everything together.

When it’s done, the final product will be a new addition to the century-old Central High School in downtown Omaha.

School expansions are not uncommon. But most don’t happen because alumni see a need and then raise $19.3 million to make it a reality.

“Doesn’t happen in public high schools. It just doesn’t. But it does here in Omaha, thanks to our philanthropic community,” said Central High School Principal Ed Bennett.

The Central High School Foundation wanted to provide new and updated spaces for the fine arts, but no one wanted the addition to block the view of the school or add a wing that would clash with the building’s neoclassical style, the Omaha World-Herald reported.

That’s where the limestone comes in.

The limestone being used for the project comes from the same area in Bloomington, Indiana, where the limestone for the original building was extracted, said Faron Riley, project manager for Sampson Construction.

The stone is cut in Indiana and then brought to Omaha, where it’s milled.

Every piece of limestone is cut, fabricated and installed. Sampson Construction works with an engineer in Indiana to figure out the size, depth and cubic footage of each piece and how to anchor it to the building.

Some of the limestone pieces weigh a couple of hundred pounds and can be set by hand. Other pieces weigh 800 to 900 pounds and have to be moved by crane.

“It cost more. And it took a little longer. But we think it’s worth it,” Mike Lebens, class of 1970, said of the limestone. Lebens is the co-chair of the project’s fundraising campaign.

The school’s current library, vocal music and drama spaces have not been significantly updated since the 1930s.

The alumni knew that the fine arts spaces were outdated, small and not equivalent to those in other high schools. Lebens said they wanted to change that.

“It’s obvious that the alumni and donors love Central. That’s why they made the donations,” Lebens said. “But I think, without exception, we’re all big supporters of public education. I think that’s critically important for Omaha and the country.”

The original school’s limestone exterior was carefully cleaned and restored. The hope is that it will be difficult to tell where the original building starts and the addition begins.

The addition will provide new classrooms for instrumental and vocal music and a black box theater - a sparse, boxlike performing space that allows for flexible sets - that also will serve as a storm shelter.

A new library also is being built. In addition to having books and computers, it also will have windows and a skylight that will let in natural light and offer a view of downtown Omaha.

The project also includes a plaza and a green roof.

The addition frees up 25,000 square feet of space inside the existing school.

That space will be repurposed for programs for special education students and English language learners. Bennett, the principal, said facilities for those students are inadequate because of the building’s size and age.

The Omaha Public Schools kicked in $5.5 million for the renovation inside the existing building and to provide furniture and fixtures for the addition. The money came out of the district’s site and building fund.

Construction work on the addition is expected to be completed in February. The goal is to have students in the new classrooms after spring break.


Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com

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