September 14, 2021

Restoring Spelman's Rockefeller Fine Arts Building: A Q&A With Arthur E. Frazier III

The HBCU Cultural Heritage Stewardship Initiative derived from a need to cultivate and uplift historic Black colleges and universities across the nation. This work is in tandem with the standard set by the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund to protect and restore places where significant Black history happened and highlight the key roles they have played in American society.

This year, eight HBCUs were awarded more than $650,000 in funding to develop cultural heritage stewardship plans for their campuses and historic sites. The sole goal of this initiative is to partner with HBCUs to empower and preserve the legacies of the campuses and ensure that the stories of their foundations are upheld to educate and inspire future generations of students to pay it forward. As part of this work, we conducted a Q&A with each grant recipient to learn about the history and work at each of these significant institutions.

Spelman College, a historically Black college for women located in Atlanta, was founded in 1881 and moved to its present site in 1884. It is America’s oldest private historically Black liberal arts college for women. Sophia Packard and Harriet Giles originally named the school Atlanta Baptist Seminary and were introduced to John D. Rockefeller, who pledged $250 to the school. In 1886, they dedicated Rockefeller Hall as the first permanent building on the campus. The campus now consists of 25 buildings on 39 acres and is part of the Atlanta University Center Historic District.

A black and white image of a modernist building made of redbrick with horizontal rooflines. There are two figures in the front of the building. There are a number of awning-type windows with an aluminum finish.

photo by: Spelman College Archives

The John D. Rockefeller Fine Arts Building was the first Modernist building on campus. The red brick structure has multiple, horizontal rooflines. Although contemporary in appearance, the front elevation replicates the tripartite design of the college's 19th-century buildings.

Interior of a theatre with a full audience of women, men, and children. It is before the show starts so the audience is conversing with one another.

photo by: Spelman College Archives

View of the audience at the Baldwin Burroughs Theatre in the John D. Rockefeller Fine Arts Building. The building opened in 1964.

The John D. Rockefeller Fine Arts Building (RFA) opened in 1964 as the first Modernist building on Spelman’s campus. In 1961, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund gifted $1 million to Spelman in memory of John D. Rockefeller Jr. $750,000 of the gift was specifically earmarked for a new fine arts building allowing the art, drama, and music departments to be housed in one location for the first time. Although contemporary in appearance, the red brick building’s facade replicates the tripartite design of the college's 19th-century buildings. The building has been in continuous use since its opening and has not undergone a major rehabilitation since its construction. Arthur E. Frazier III, AIA, director of facilities management and services, speaks below on why it is important to preserve the Rockefeller Fine Arts Building.

How is the Rockefeller Fine Arts Building inspiring current students and alumnae at Spelman?

It was at Spelman that alumna and actress LaTanya Richardson Jackson fully cultivated her love of the arts and developed her talents to forge an extraordinary career both on the stage and screen. This career includes a starring role in the Tony-nominated Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, a Tony-nominated performance in A Raisin in the Sun, and the critically-acclaimed For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. It was also at RFA where she first crossed paths with the artist who would become her husband of 41 years, Samuel L. Jackson, a student at Morehouse College, whom she met in drama club. Day in and day out, Richardson Jackson lived to be at the Rockefeller Fine Arts Building, where she was afforded the opportunity to learn from older student actors.

When she saw that the Spelman fine arts building had fallen into disrepair, she and her husband were determined to do something about it. Richardson Jackson believes this building, this sacred space, possesses the magical essence of a strange and immutable arts alchemy.

Just as her own community assisted her while growing up in achieving her ambitions, she has now decided to give back and pay it forward to the next generation so that more LaTanya Richardson Jacksons can grace our stages and screens and produce theatrical fare that ensures all stories are valued and told.

View of a stage at a theatre with some dancers on the right and left and a group of other actors in the center. There is a chandelier hanging from the ceiling with two columns in the rear of the stage.

photo by: Spelman College Archives

View of actors on stage at the Baldwin Burroughs Theatre. In the center is Samuel L. Jackson, at center-right is LaTanya Richardson, and at the right in the white hat is Edward Billups.

What are the preservation goals for the Rockefeller Fine Arts Building?

I have been at Spelman for 16 years, and we always talked about rehabilitating the Rockefeller Fine Arts Building. The fine arts building is definitely in need of a major refresh, which was done to a number of Spelman’s historic buildings such as Rockefeller Hall, Packard Hall, and Sisters Chapel. For the Rockefeller Fine Arts Building, the preservation goals include updating the building's electrical and mechanical systems, ensuring its structural integrity, and modernizing its performance, creative, and rehearsal spaces to meet the current needs of our artistic community. Projects such as this are how we are improving the campus community while preserving Spelman’s history, especially for current and future students.

Exterior panoramic view of the Spelman Rockefeller Fine Arts building. The center section has four relief images on the awning style windows. The building is largely made up of red brick.

photo by: Spelman College Archives

Exterior view of Spelman's Rockefeller Fine Arts Building.

How important is student involvement in the renovation of the Rockefeller Fine Arts Building?

The building is for the students, so having their input and faculty input will position us to provide spaces that will support their needs. It will also allow us to engage students with the preservation of Spelman’s campus and the ongoing need to preserve its cultural and built history. It is not enough to just preserve these buildings. We want to make sure they are relevant to how our students live and learn at Spelman in the 21st century. It is our intent that having students at the table participating in the development of these preservation plans will create future advocates for not only the preservation of Spelman but of all HBCUs.

How will the renovation support Spelman’s fine arts program?

The key thing is updating the facilities to better support current theater and performance curriculum.

What are the next preservation goals for Spelman’s campus?

Most likely renovation and modernization of Morehouse-James Hall, constructed in 1901. It is one of four un-air-conditioned halls on campus that sits on the historic campus oval and is a contributing building in the Atlanta University Center Historic District. [Spelman is a part of this National Historic Landmark district, established in 1977 and includes other notable Atlanta HBCUs Clark Atlanta University, Morris Brown College, and Morehouse College.]

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Monique Robinson is a graduate student in architecture and historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania. In the Summer of 2021 she was an intern with the National Trust's HBCU Cultural Heritage Stewardship Initiative.

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