How to Rehabilitate a Historic Rosenwald School
Rosenwald Schools once served generations of teachers, students, parents, and other community members. Today, the schools’ walls continue to tell stories of segregation, perseverance, and the importance of education -- like those from Mabel Dickey, who attended Mt. Zion near Florence, S.C., and Bishop Frederick C. James, who attended Howard Bishop High School in Prosperity, S.C.
Stories like these make the preservation of Rosenwald Schools unique, and they’re the reason the National Trust launched a campaign to save as many remaining schools as possible.
While many steps for saving a historic neighborhood school also apply to Rosenwald Schools, here are 10 grassroots tips for rehabilitating a Rosenwald School in your community.
1. Determine who owns the school building and property. Reach out to the owner of the Rosenwald School in your community. Will they consider selling, donating, or giving permission for you to repair and use the building?
2. Identify immediate threats. Potential threats can include: demolition or neglect, water intrusion, vandalism, and animals or insects. A few quick fixes include: Temporarily cover leaks with tarps, metal flashing, or other waterproof material; have volunteers periodically check on the building, as vandalism is less likely if you are able to maintain a presence on the site; board broken glass or missing windows with plywood until they can be repaired; and cover and block all points of access for rodents, bats, birds, and other animals.
3. Seek professional help. For information on rehabilitating Rosenwald Schools, contact the National Trust’s Rosenwald Schools Initiative. You can also connect with your state historic preservation office (SHPO), local preservation organizations, and the National Park Service for more assistance with your project.
4. Get organized. Who will lead the project and help fundraise? Determine the partners and alliances that can help your project succeed. Consider forming your own 501(c)(3) nonprofit group.
5. Reach out to volunteers. Volunteers can be a wonderful asset to your project. It’s important to match volunteers to jobs based on each individual’s skills. Also, if you’re doing any construction, make sure volunteers are supervised and following your rehabilitation plan.
6. Do your research. Find out the history of the school and understand its historic significance -- when was it built, are there any living students who once attended the school, did any particular events happen on the property, etc. You can use this information to garner local support for your project.
7. Seek official designation. Listing in the National Register of Historic Places or state or local register will be especially helpful when applying for grants. Contact your SHPO for more information about this process.
8. Determine a new use that will be financially sustainable and compatible with the building. Many Rosenwald Schools can continue to thrive as community centers, studios, museums, private homes, and more. A community needs assessment can be especially helpful in making the final decision. Make sure the new use will allow you to retain, when possible, distinctive historic features such as ceiling heights, lighting, blackboards, tin ceilings, wainscoting, doors, and windows.
9. Plan your project. Determine what work will need to be done, who will do it, and how much it will cost. When hiring architects, contractors, or engineers, be sure to check their references, and seek professionals who work with historic buildings. Get more than one bid, but remember that lowest is not always best. Also meet with each person before hiring, and make sure you feel comfortable with any professional you hire. Need help in selecting the right professionals? Call your SHPO for assistance.
10. Build community support. Get the community excited about your rehabilitation project. Share your plan at a town meeting. Launch a website so neighbors can find out up-to-date details on the project. Plan a special event to celebrate the successfully rehabilitated building and invite the community.
Check out the National Trust’s publication, Preserving Rosenwald Schools, for more information.
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