Renovation plans for a Rosenwald school in Albemarle County are taking another step forward.
St. John Family Life and Fitness Center Inc. and the Building Goodness Foundation have submitted plans to request a special-use permit from the county that would allow the building in the Cobham-Gordonsville area to be used as a community center.
The project is years in the making, and Rebecca Kinney, president of the St. John group, said they’re excited to get it off the ground and to be open to the public. Kinney said their main goal is to restore and preserve the former school.
“This will be a place where you can come and enjoy hearing us tell stories about the time that we spent in the school,” she said. “It will be a place where we’ll have an exercise room, we will have exercise classes, we will have classes and workshops that you can attend, and lectures. In addition, you’ll be able to spend time in our resource library, and also walk down memory lane with us as we tell stories about our experiences in school, and about the neighborhood and the church.”
The school building was constructed in 1922 and was one of seven Rosenwald schools built in Albemarle. The Rosenwald Fund was established by Julius Rosenwald of Sears, Roebuck and Co., in partnership with Booker T. Washington, president of Tuskegee Institute, to build schools primarily for African American children throughout the South.
Only five of the schools are still in existence in the county, and St. John School will be the only one of those that is not a residence.
The project is part of the Building Goodness Foundation’s C’ville Builds program, which is supporting construction repair and restoration efforts in the area, specifically for low-income homeowners, nonprofit organizations and small businesses that are struggling as a result of the pandemic and ongoing effects of structural inequity.
Kathy Garstang, local projects and operations director for the foundation, said C’ville Builds is a coalition of builders, community members, organizations, donors and volunteers, and their goal is to raise more than $300,000.
“We feel we are now armed with not only our skilled volunteers but actually some funds to put towards these very important projects,” she said.
The project team members — who include two engineers, two project managers and one historic preservation architect — are working pro bono on the St. John School renovation.
Jody Lahendro, the historic preservation architect on the project, said there are very few exterior changes proposed for the building, which had been a residence from 1954 until 2003.
“The original finishes are still beneath later finishes put on when it was changed to a residence,” he said. “I estimate about 85% of the original historic finishes still exist in the school, and we are going to be restoring all of those original finishes.”
Outside, a handicapped ramp will be installed just outside of the second entrance door. The building will still have a kitchen, and the team plans to add an exercise room, two multi-purpose rooms, a meeting lounge, an office, a meeting and display room and bathrooms.
“We are going to restore the original opening that was between the two classrooms,” Lahendro said. “This was a feature in most all Rosenwald schools to allow the community to use the school buildings not only for schools, but also for community uses, larger events — and it’s wonderful that we’re going to be able to restore that ideal here in this building.”
St. John Family Life and Fitness Center Inc. formed in 2011, and in 2016 the building received a Virginia Department of Historic Resources historical highway marker. The school was added to the Virginia Landmarks Register in 2018 and to the National Register of Historic Places the next year.
Kinney said the first phase of the project — a septic system — was completed in 2018.
The nonprofit received a $75,000 grant in 2019 from the African American Civil Rights program of the Historic Preservation Fund, which is administered by the National Park Service, to stabilize the foundation of the building.
Garstang said they have a lot of donated labor for the project, and grant money that can cover some expenses that can’t be done for free.
“We’re gonna have to pay something, of course, so hopefully those grants will then cover those chunks that we will have to pay for,” she said. “We’re leveraging all we can, and any additional support would be appreciated.”
During a community meeting last month, Albemarle Supervisor Bea LaPisto-Kirtley said she was 100% behind the project.
“I just love this project, and I’ll be doing everything I can in my power to support it,” she said.
More information on the project is available at stjohnfamilylife.org.