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While other local schools have been installing (or planning to install) new, state-of-the-art theaters, one Jefferson County school has gone the opposite way.

Crystal City School District has chosen to update its historic Depression-era high school auditorium the old-fashioned way – by hand, one wooden seat at a time.

The auditorium is part of the original school structure, built in 1939 by the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal organization designed to put the unemployed to work on infrastructure projects.

The WPA built hundreds of similar schools across the country; Bayless High School in south St. Louis County, the Rockwood Annex (formerly Eureka High School) in Eureka and the original Perryville High School are nearby examples.

Workers also built the stone hiking shelters, picnic pavilions and the 1,000 Steps Trail at Washington State Park southwest of De Soto.

On a recent Tuesday morning, students in the industrial technology class at Crystal City High School were like a hive of bees. In the woodworking classroom, several were busy sanding, while others applied coats of stain. In the auditorium down the hallway, some were hard at work with polyurethane and steel wool, while the remaining few worked with wrenches and hammers.

They were putting the last touches on a four-year project to refurbish the 400-plus seats in the high school auditorium.

“We would never have been able to get this done professionally,” high school principal Matt Holdinghausen said. “The cost would have been just way too prohibitive. The funny thing is, it started out as a discipline issue, and it’s turned out to be just a great project for the school.”

Making it right

A punishment in 2015 jump-started the project.

“I had a student who was caught doing some damage to the back of one of the seats,” said industrial arts teacher Mike Osher, 39, in his 11th year teaching in the Crystal City district. “I told him, ‘Well, I know just how you can make this right,’ and he had to refinish the seat and reattach it.”

The finished product was so impressive that Osher and the students did a few more.

“There were some seats that were broken, some that had bad language on them,” he said. “We did those, and they looked so great.”

But a few glossy, refinished chairs in a sea of old ones wasn’t exactly a satisfying aesthetic.

“I thought, ‘Hey – that looks really nice; why not do it to all of them?’” Holdinghausen said. “It just looked so good, we started on the left side and went through all of them.”

Each of the folding seats consists of a metal frame, a laminated maple-veneer seat and back and a solid wood armrest. The chairs are disassembled, then the wooden parts sanded, stained and reassembled in their places before being finished with a coat of polyurethane.

Osher said he has incorporated the refinishing into his curriculum, teaching the skills and techniques to students during regular class time.

“We break the classes down into crews, and appoint foremen,” he said. “Most of the kids, once they learn the skills, can do their jobs with just minimal supervision. We set it up in assembly-line fashion; it takes probably about a week to do a full row, if everything is clicking.”

Point of pride

Osher said the project has produced some unexpected results.

“It has really upped these kids’ problem-solving skills,” he said. “When they first started, if they ran into a problem, they’d just stop. Now they work the problem, find a solution.

“I think it gives them more confidence in their own skills and abilities.”

Not that there haven’t been a few bumps in the road.

“You’d think these are interchangeable,” he said, gesturing around at the identical-looking seats. “But we learned early on that, for whatever reason, there are some minor differences in fit. Maybe they’ve shifted over 80 years; I don’t know.

“But we’ve learned to mark each one so they go back in the same spot. There was a huge learning curve there at the beginning.”

Another surprising result of the project is that intentional damage to the chairs has been virtually eliminated.

“It’s self-governing,” Osher said. “There hasn’t been any damage or graffiti that we know of in the four years we’ve been doing this.”

The cost to the school for the restoration has been minimal.

“It’s just some sandpaper, stain, some poly,” Osher said. “The labor is what costs a fortune in a situation like this.”

Holdinghausen said the project would never even have been discussed if it meant paying full price.

“No way,” he said flatly. “The auditorium is great, but we could never have justified the cost for that when there are so many other things we need to do.”

So the students’ hard work, dedication and craftsmanship have been a priceless boon to the school.

“We do bribe them sometimes with pizza,” Osher said with a laugh. “But, honestly, I think it has given the kids a real sense of ownership. All the kids who have worked on this, they have a deeper sense of belonging.”

And the school now can show off its history with renewed pride.

“These are just great,” Osher said, gesturing around at the gleaming wood of the refurbished chairs. “They literally don’t make them like this anymore.”