“Historic schools link generations within a community. Schools are also local landmark buildings–like county courthouses, city halls, and libraries,– which are monumental in architecture and rich in associative memories.” – W. Ray Luce
A recent resurvey trip to John’s Creek, Georgia to locate two historic school houses got me thinking about this unique building type. Schools play an important role in our lives. They are the buildings in which we learn to read, write, dream about what we will be when we grow up, and make life long friends. Memories from our formative years are important and preserving the buildings associated with these memories can provide significant anchors for individuals and the community.
Historic schools are one of my favorite building types. I’m intrigued by the uniqueness of each one, whether a high style or vernacular example, and the feelings of nostalgia brought about by their presence.
The image above is a recent photo of Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Alabama. This impressive building was completed in 1922 and still serves the community as a magnet school. Woodlawn High also contains the largest WPA mural surrounding the proscenium arch in the high school’s auditorium. It was painted between 1934 and 1939 by Sidney van Sheck and Richard Blauvelt Coe for the Works Progress Administration. The mural is currently undergoing a restoration and more information about the effort can be found here.
Deferred maintenance is the main culprit for the decline and abandonment of historic schools. Continual use of these buildings is also a challenge that communities often face; historic schools located in the city core or town center are often outgrown and abandoned, and new facilities are built on the outskirts of town.
By abandoning these existing facilities, children have to be transported by bus and car to the new facilities, adding to traffic congestion, traffic time, decreasing neighborhood cohesiveness, and expenses. In addition to these effects, farmland and forests are destroyed to make room for new school and infrastructure needed to support it.
Not all schools can continue to be used for their original purpose, but they can often be successful adaptive reuse projects that can serve their community. For example, the NewTown School building and the Warsaw School building in John’s Creek, Georgia are both successful adaptive reuse projects in the community.
NewTown School in John’s Creek, Georgia is a recent adaptive reuse project. This 1929 school house went through a major renovation in 2010 and is now called Park Place and serves the community as an active senior center. The building retained the original shape of the building with some new materials like the roof and windows. The interior of the school house features historic photographs from the NewTown School years.
The Warsaw School also located in John’s Creek was dedicated in 1933, experienced a major renovation (including a mid-century modern cafeteria addition). The last school term at the Warsaw School was in 1980s.
Shortly after its days as a school, the Warsaw building was renewed as an office building. Although the historic context no longer exists, the property owners did an incredible job maintaining the historic character and materials of the Warsaw School.
- HomeSchool: Living in converted school buildings (DesignSponge)
- A Lost Historic School: Francis M Drexel School (Preservation in Pink)
Resources: Preserving Historic Schools (Georgia Historic Preservation Division)