History of the Davidson School
(This article was originally published in the Fall 2009 Davidson Historical Society Newsletter. To learn more about the society and read additional newsletters go to the website. It was excerpted from a Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission Survey and Research Report. For the entire report, please this website.)
The building at 251 South Street that currently serves as the Davidson IB School was built in 1948. (Editor’s note: After this article originally published, the school building ceased being the Davidson IB Middle School and was occupied until recently by a private school.) This building originally served grades 1-12 as the Davidson School, and was built to replace the 1893 Davidson Academy building, which burned down on July 15, 1946 during an electrical storm. The school gymnasium, built in 1937, was not damaged in the fire.
In October 1946, a delegation from Davidson urged the Mecklenburg County Board of Education to build a new building on the same site, open the new school building by 1947, purchase more land for the new building, and be sure that the new building would be large enough to accommodate the present and future needs. The Board responded by directing the school superintendent to hire architect Louis Asbury for the project, to pursue the purchase of adjoining land, and to seek Federal Works Administration (FWA) funds for the cost of the architect. The project did not proceed quickly.
An adjoining lot containing the home of J. M. Potts was sought to expand the school site. In January 1947, the Board of Education had authorized spending up to $10,000 for the property, but after long negotiations, no agreement could be reached. In March 1947, the Board approved a contract with Asbury that paid the architect 6% of the construction costs for designing the building, supervising construction, and representing the Board of Education’s interest. Gaining the additional land continued to be problematic, and in April the Board directed Asbury to move ahead with plans for just the existing school property. In May frustration with the slow pace of the project was demonstrated when a large delegation from the town requested the “immediate erection of a ‘fire proof’ building.” Negotiations with Mr. Potts continued until June 1947, when Mr. Potts agreed to sell his lot for $7,980 and move his house to a nearby parcel. With all of the impediments cleared, the Board of Education met in special session on July 8, 1947, nearly one year after the 1893 Davidson Academy building had burned, to approve spending $245,690 on the new building.
Asbury designed an L-shaped, two-story, 32,000 square-foot building for the Davidson School. Asbury’s design surely addressed the citizens’ desire for a fireproof building. Solid masonry walls supported steel trusses, and concrete floors replaced the oiled wooden floors of the old building. In terms of public education buildings, the new Davidson School was a showplace. Little non-military building of any type was constructed during World War II, and the contrast in style and construction between the new school building and the school’s gymnasium, built just one decade earlier, was dramatic. Whereas the gymnasium featured a restrained classically influenced style that had been employed in institutional buildings for at least half a century, the new building featured a Modernist design that highlighted simple functional lines and industrially produced building materials, most especially the large prominent ribbons of aluminum windows across the façade and rear elevation.
Functionally, the new building offered large classrooms, well-lit with natural sunlight and rows of modern fluorescent lighting, wide halls and stairwells, dedicated offices for the staff, a large auditorium, and a modern cafeteria in the basement. Asbury may have faced some limitations in producing a modernist design due the availability of material. In contrast to the metal ribbon windows, tall traditional triple-hung wooden sash were used on the auditorium. While many Modernist slab doors were used in the design, including some with round porthole windows, many secondary doors were frame-and-panel doors that would have been typical on most early-twentieth-century school buildings. But despite these compromises, the Davidson School represented a definite break with the past, and served as a demonstration of progressive school design.
On September 15, 1948, the Board of Education met in the new Davidson School to inspect and approve the building. The building was approved with the understanding that the plumbing and lighting would be finished, and that some issues involving painting, doors, and drawers would be addressed. The opening of the school was unfortunately delayed due to a polio outbreak. When it finally opened around the first of October, many elements of the school were still not finished including the lighting and the seats for the auditorium. Money for library books was not approved until January 1949. Despite these delays, students enjoyed the new school building. Martha Fulcher Montgomery remembers the new building as modern and luxurious, with high ceilings and nice bathrooms. Edith Cashion remembers the building as “new, modern, and clean.”
Alumni remember that the auditorium was used for choral concerts, plays, and weekly assemblies. While the Presbyterian church was being re-built, services were held in the auditorium, including a wedding. The cafeteria was the site of an annual Halloween carnival hosted by the fire department. High school students moved to the new North Mecklenburg High School in Huntersville when it opened in 1951. John M. Alexander Junior High School opened in 1960, and after a few transitional years, the Davidson School became the Davidson Elementary School. In 1994, a new elementary school was built farther south on South Street. The Davidson IB School opened as a magnet middle school in the mid-1990s.
Jan Blodgett moved to Davidson in 1994. In 2017, she retired after 23 years as the Davidson College Archivist. Jan and former Davidson College history professor, Ralph Levering, are the co-authors of "One Town, Many Voices: A history of Davidson, North Carolina."