Traces of the Past: Neighborhood Schools and the Power of Place

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Parterre garden at Formwalt School, 1933. From Garden History of Georgia: 1733- 1933.
Parterre garden at Formwalt School, 1933. From Garden History of Georgia: 1733-
1933.

In Atlanta, as in countless cities, schools have historically served as community anchors. Today, new schools typically are built to serve existing communities. However, historic development patterns show that schools have created and fostered communities that have grown up around them. From the late nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, schools were often an integral part of planned developments—a stark contrast with mixed-use developments of today, which feature retail and commercial presence but where the state is noticeably absent.
The impact of schools on social geography and the built environment is often most noticeable only after the fact. School closure and redistricting have been facts of life in Atlanta over the past several decades, as residential patterns have shifted numerous times. So, what happens when the anchor of a neighborhood closes its doors? What imprint on the landscape does a school leave behind?
Empty George W. Adair School in Adair Park. Photo by Amber Rhea.
Empty George W. Adair School in Adair Park. Photo by Amber Rhea.

Throughout the metro area, many schools sit empty, in varying stages of neglect. Sky Haven Elementary in East Atlanta has been closed for only a few years and, aside from some overgrown weeds, still looks reasonably ready to welcome students. At the other end of the spectrum, John B. Gordon School in the heart of East Atlanta Village is being reclaimed by nature and stands as a hulking relic in the center of an otherwise active commercial corridor. In Adair Park, the imposing Gothic Revival structure of the George W. Adair School, circa 1911, stands as solidly as it did a hundred years ago, but devoid of life. No longer a community gathering place, it represents an intown neighborhood’s struggle to remain vibrant in the wake of a century’s worth of population, demographic, and transportation shifts. In Mechanicsville, Formwalt School now sits on a forgotten, makeshift cul-de-sac abutting I-20, its dramatic arched entryway providing solace to homeless individuals in search of a place to rest. Could it serve this population in an official capacity through adaptive use as a shelter, church outreach office, or community center? Does anyone with the power to make that happen even know it exists?
Former W.F. Slaton School, now elementary campus of Atlanta Neighborhood  Charter School. Photo courtesy dulemba.com.
Former W.F. Slaton School, now elementary campus of Atlanta Neighborhood
Charter School. Photo courtesy dulemba.com.

Reuse of school buildings is both common and challenging. Following, again, the preservation mantra that a structure’s best use is its original use, many historic public schools find themselves reopened as charter schools. When a school’s charter gives priority attendance to students living in the surrounding neighborhood, the school is able to maintain, to a degree, its function as a gathering place for the community—often providing much-needed revitalization if the building had been empty for a long time. The former W.F. Slaton School in Grant Park became Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School’s elementary campus, and the former Anne E. West School in Ormewood Park became its middle school campus. However, all students in a given neighborhood do not attend charter schools, so this use can recapture only some of the function of the previous school. Charter school conversion can also lead to issues never faced by neighborhood schools. Conversion of the former Heritage Elementary to the new GLOBE Academy came with the need for a strategic traffic management plan. Striving for an answer, school officials asked neighborhood residents how things had worked when the school was open before. The answer? “Everybody walked.”
1931 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map showing Grant Park School at 400 Boulevard.
1931 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map showing Grant Park School at 400 Boulevard.

Google Earth image of 400 Boulevard today.
Google Earth image of 400 Boulevard today.

A surprising number of schools in Atlanta have been reused as housing. A few examples: Highland School in Virginia-Highland; Kirkwood School in Kirkwood; Inman Park School in (you guessed it) Inman Park. Walking through the halls of the former Bass High School—now a trendy loft conversion in Little Five Points—is a somewhat unsettling experience. Countless features imprinted on the collective unconscious of generations endure: the checkerboard linoleum floors, the metal lockers, the unfortunately named slave clocks… even blackboards remain on the walls of some apartments. Schools, like other public buildings designed for a specific purpose, have unique characteristics that make adaptation to other uses feel a bit awkward. Of course, these character-defining features should be preserved, but the fact that we are catapulted back to memories—good or bad—of childhood can be a startling experience to reconcile with the day-to-day rhythm of adult life.
Kirkwood School is now loft condominiums. Photo by Amber Rhea.
Kirkwood School is now loft condominiums. Photo by Amber Rhea.

Historic Atlanta schools also have stories to tell of a unique fact of landscape architecture. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, many Atlanta public schools had extensive gardens planted and tended by the students. What started as wartime “victory gardens” during World War I evolved into a means of teaching everything from the natural sciences to a sense of self-sufficiency and accomplishment (indeed, the same benefits noted by school garden advocates today). Many of these gardens were documented in the 1933 book Garden History of Georgia: 1733–1933, published by the Peachtree Garden Club. In most cases, virtually nothing remains of the gardens, but a few traces can be found on some campuses. Students at J.C. Harris School (now KIPP STRIVE Academy) planted sunken beds in the window wells along the basement windows. These beds can still be seen today, although they have been covered over. Meanwhile, KIPP STRIVE Academy has its own garden of numerous raised beds. At Frank L. Stanton Elementary, which is still in use, remnants of a former rock garden endure mainly because they are too large and difficult to move. In contrast, the rock garden, butterfly-shaped reflecting pool, and historic great white oak at Whitefoord School were destroyed when the school built a major addition.
Plan of Whitefoord School garden, 1933. From Garden History of Georgia: 1733-1933.
Plan of Whitefoord School garden, 1933. From Garden History of Georgia: 1733-1933.

Stone staircase of former Jerome Jones School in Grant Park.  Photo by Amber Rhea.
Stone staircase of former Jerome Jones School in Grant Park. Photo by Amber Rhea.

Of course, many schools have been eradicated. Sometimes they still manage to leave their mark on the landscape, as in the case of the former Jerome Jones School in Grant Park. The school is gone, and Charis Community Housing, a nonprofit organization that builds housing for low-income citizens, has redeveloped the property. On the site are a dozen houses, a few mature trees, and, at the center rear of the property, a large stone stairway—the former entrance to the historic school. Despite the stairway’s size, the casual observer easily misses it, because the houses and greenery obscure its view from the public right-of-way. At the base of the stairs are holly shrubs that could be from the school’s historic garden, and hidden behind the shrubs is a small stone arch that appears to be the remains of a fountain.
Jerome Jones School and its former garden have already succumbed, and the remaining structure is threatened by neglect and vandalism. At least a physical reminder still exists, however, with the opportunity for preservation and beautification. Many other schools were not so lucky. Grant Park School once stood at 400 Boulevard, an address that is now in the middle of I-20. The site of Howell Elementary is now the Howell Station Shopping Center. The former location of Maddox Junior High is a storage facility and office park. Lee Street School and Luckie Street School are, unceremoniously, parking lots.
National Trust for Historic Preservation advertisement, 2003.
National Trust for Historic Preservation advertisement, 2003.

Neighborhood schools were an integral part of community planning and development throughout the first half of the twentieth century, and thus many of us live in neighborhoods that tell the stories of their past through the presence of a centrally located school—whether still open in its original capacity, reused as a charter school or for some other purpose, or empty and derelict. Old school buildings have the power to impact us profoundly, as almost all of us experienced a significant portion of our childhood in such a building. It’s no wonder the National Trust for Historic Preservation chose a school as the focus of its highly successful 2003 ad campaign. The maintenance, protection, and repurposing of schools—or their demolition—offer a perfect case study in how preservation is about so much more than bricks and mortar.