Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School's auditorium has been faulted by a national accreditation board.

HAMILTON — Most people's memories of adolescence include high school assemblies. Whether it was for a pep rally, an inspirational speaker or an awards presentation, the gatherings promoted a sense of community in students.

Recent graduates of Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School don't have memories quite like that. The school's auditorium, built in the early 1960s, doesn't have enough seats for all 726 of them.

And of the seats there are, a number have signs stuck on them alerting would-be users they are broken.

The auditorium's condition was one of the factors that led the New England Association of Schools and Colleges to place the school on "warning" status two years ago.

The question now being considered is whether auditorium renovations present a unique opportunity for the community to become a destination for entertainers, or should simply result in a renovated hall that meets minimal requirements. What's becoming clear is that whatever is done won't come cheap.

The regional School Committee commissioned Dore and Whittier Architects to study auditorium renovations and last Thursday heard the results. Even those who might be sympathetic to a far-reaching project were a little stunned at the estimated cost: $6.7 million to $8.8 million.

That's better than double the $3.6 million the North Shore Music Theatre sold for last week, and that included 26 acres along with buildings.

The $20,000 cost of the study was paid through a grant from the Hamilton Wenham Education Fund, a nonprofit corporation set up 20 years ago to establish an endowment fund for the schools.

School Committee Chairwoman Lisa Gaquin said the architects were only asked to address two scenarios. First, fit the entire student body into the room.

One solution proposed would add a mezzanine with 160 seats, boosting the total capacity to 730. The second, more ambitious scenario would increase the number of seats to 800 and also completely overhaul the stage and backstage, providing segregated dressing rooms and other amenities that would make the venue acceptable to performers other than high school thespians.

But it would also mean essentially razing the auditorium.

Gaquin said she anticipates some residents will suggest the School Committee spend the least amount possible to address shortcomings, and she doesn't think that will be acceptable, either.

"Just fixing it will cost millions of dollars, and we get nothing for it," Gaquin said. "In my opinion, we either do nothing or we move ahead and do it right."

Enough is Enough is a grass-roots citizen's group that formed to lobby against a school override in 2008. Though that battle was unsuccessful, the group has continued to fight to hold the line on property-tax increases.

Speaking from a prepared statement on Sunday, EIE member George LaMontagne said the group commended the education fund for footing the bill for the study.

"In times like this, it's good to have dreams and goals for a state-of-the-art facility," he said.

At the same time, any suggestion taxpayers foot the bill for the project was "not feasible" in the current economy, LaMontagne said.

Gaquin agreed with him. She said the School Committee would never have money in its budget for such an expensive undertaking.

"We're talking about a major (private) capital campaign," she said. "The Ed Fund is ready to start this."

She said just adding a mezzanine would not meet the committee's goal of having the stage and backstage areas brought up to current standards.

"It's pretty ratty back there," she said.

Nor would it satisfy locals who have expressed a desire that the auditorium help make Hamilton a destination for both performers and audiences.

But that may require some true generosity.

"To me it's an exciting opportunity for the future," Gaquin said, "if there's someone out there waiting to make a great contribution.'

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