The historic Billingsville Rosenwald School is getting a much needed facelift. Founded in 1927, the brick building on Leroy Street in the Grier Heights neighborhood is undergoing a $500,000 renovation that will maintain the historical accuracy of the school’s importance to the African-American community.
The 4,600-square-foot building is one of some 5,300 established in the rural south during the early part of the 20th century via a partnership between Tuskegee Institute leader Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, philanthropist and chief executive of Sears, Roebuck & Co. The two sought to raise the dismal standards of education for African-American children through Rosenwald Foundation grants and local contributions.
Jonathan Belton, chair of the Grier Heights Community Center Board, used to walk to the three-classroom school daily in the 1960s.
“It was a very close-knit family environment,” he said of his experience there as a student. “There was a sense of pride. Nobody thought the school as less-than.” Belton says the school gave him a “great foundation and a desire to move forward.”
The one-story building, on the National Register of Historic Places, has had a couple of iterations over the years, including use as a site for special-needs children. A small, flat-roofed brick addition was added in 1949 to accommodate rest rooms and storage. The present-day site still includes a large bay of front windows that characterize Rosenwald Schools, which were designed to make use of light in an era when electricity was scarce in rural area.
But the building was showing its age, with the last renovations done some 20 years ago. Rehabbing the building was paramount to the community.
“We did a needs assessment and town hall meetings,” Belton said. “And this was important to them.” Once work is complete, Belton will reopen the site as a community center.
Teardown started in late October and construction will adhere to the building’s original architectural standards. New windows will match the buildings current banks of nine-over-nine, double-hung panels with wooden sashes and mullions that face Leroy Street. All the tongue-in-groove wainscoting and beaded wallboard will be restored, as will the hardwood floors.
Construction also will repair the interior doors and their transom windows, which allow air to flow through rooms while the door is closed. Contractors are scheduled to tear out a partition wall between two large classrooms and replace it with slide doors, allowing for future meetings at the site.
Plans also call for a new HVAC system, electrical systems, gutters and downspouts, as well as modernized bathrooms and a kitchen area to warm buffet meals. Interior walls will be cleaned and painted, as will outside trim.
Members of the Grier Heights community have pledged to design and install landscaping and a new shingle roof will be added with the help of Habitat for Humanity. A local resident has opted to donate computers.
All in all, the project is expected to cost $500,000, said Don Gately , executive director of CrossRoads Corp., a local nonprofit dedicated to the revitalization of the Grier Heights neighborhood. Funds are coming from a $200,000 grant from Charlotte snack-food manufacturer Snyder’s-Lance Inc. Wells Fargo & Co. donated $100,000, as did Myers Park Presbyterian Church. An additional $150,000 comes from the Van Everly Foundation, with $25,000 added by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The remainder of the $575,000 in donations will be set up as an operating reserve for the new community center director and expenses.
Belton has high hopes for the center, which is slated to open as work is completed in late March. Plans are in the works for a book exchange, computer access and classes, worker assistance programs, literacy and GED training, a food bank and a clothes closet. Two local churches will use the site as a meeting house.
“This means a new beginning for many of the residents,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to have a centrally located center that offers basic support services, education for adults, employment and family services, and social activities for the community.”
None of it, however, would have happened had it not been for local interest.
“This is a perfect example of a partnership because the community has really stepped up,” said Allen Woodward, chair elect of CrossRoads. “There was so much pride in the building and it meant so much to the people that it be restored.”
Project description: Renovation of historic Billingsville Rosenwald School
Address: 3100 Leroy Street, Charlotte
Contractor: Heartland Contracting
Construction started: November 2014
Construction completed: March 2015