Preserving History While Embracing the Future
Saturday morning, March 25, a crowd gathered in front of the building at 251 South Street. Rain clouds threatened, but the excitement in the air dampened the concerns of rain.
The day’s activities began with a formal ribbon cutting, complete with a pair of giant red and gold scissors. Before the ribbon was cut, the Mayor (who attended school in the building, as had his father) asked for a show of hands of fellow former students. Dozens of guests raised their hands.
Following the ribbon, cutting guests moved into the renovated auditorium. Much to the amazement of many, the chairs were original. They had been lovingly restored and reinstalled. Some of the seats were removed to make space for a sound and lighting booth, but more than 300 seats remain. The auditorium now gives the Town a larger meeting space than ever before. And most of those seats were filled Saturday morning.
Mayor Rusty Knox, Town Manager Jamie Justice, and Assistant Town Manager Austin Nantz made brief remarks. The short program also included a video produced by the Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission featuring Davidson resident Stewart Gray talking about the historical significance of the building.
At the conclusion of the formal portion of the day, those dozens of former students wandered the building that once served as their school. Several families had three generations on hand. In most cases the grandparents and parents shared their stories of attending school, while the grandkids seemed to be more interested in the opportunities to create art or finding the food in various locations around the building.
Many commented on the combination of preserving the old school while ensuring ample space for community and town staff in the future. More than one person made the comparison of the dedication of Town Hall at 216 S. Main Street in 1991. When it was dedicated, there was ample extra space. Some of that extra space was used by the dance studio, which explained the nice wooden floors in the Planning Department offices. By the end of its role as Town Hall, 216 S. Main Street was “bursting at the seams.” Hopefully, the square footage of 251 South Street will accommodate the community and town staff for decades and decades into the future.
And when the three-hour event at 251 South Street was coming to a close, there were still people wandering the hallways and former classrooms. There was even an effort to go room-by-room to make sure no one was being left behind.
There were so many highlights. Risking the potential to overlook something, here are just a few:
- The auditorium and notably the seats
- The floors in the hallways are the original terrazzo, cleaned up and polished.
- The preserved (restored) classroom. [Note: the original asbestos tile floor was removed and remediated.]
- The transformation of the old cafeteria into a large meeting space.
- The new portion of the building includes an elevator, which allowed some of the guest with mobility issues easy access to all three floors of the building.
- The new Town Board room – many were surprised to learn that it was the old school language lab.
- The new mural painted by artist Kristin Feighery.
Samples of the many reactions from the community are provided below.
— One of my BEST days ever of being Mayor. So proud of our citizens for voting to save this special place for our Town. Grateful for the cooperation and relationships with CMS and Mecklenburg County.
Mayor Rusty Knox
— Saturday was an amazing day. A day of celebration for our entire community. I won’t soon forget the reaction when Rusty asked the crowd standing on South Street how many of them went to school in the building. People raised their hands enthusiastically, and the rest of the crowd gasped and then applauded. I spent the next 3+ hours soaking it in, the reality that I had been lucky enough to be part of the process to preserve part of our town’s history.
— Sometimes preserving the history means preserving the difficult history. We cannot lose sight of the fact that when this school was built – it was for “whites only.” And the final school to operate in the building was a private school (leasing from CMS) that openly discriminated on who they hired and who they admitted. As the new Town Hall and Community Center, this historic building is now open to all.
Commissioner Jane Campbell
— Perhaps nothing symbolizes our small, historic town more than Saturday’s opening of the new Town Hall and Community Center. Taking a historic building, repurposing it for future generations and welcoming everyone to experience all it has to offer. It is everything, and more, that a Town Hall should be in a Town like Davidson. I hope every citizen will, at some point, take a moment to walk through the building and see the hard work of town staff and numerous volunteers who helped guide this project to its amazing final product.
Commissioner Ryan Fay
— It was a good day with citizens and visitors getting a chance to see the new Town Hall and Community Center. I’ve heard estimates of 300-400 folks stopping by, and while that’s clearly a sliver of our more than 15,000 citizens, the feedback I received about the building was predominantly positive. I’m looking forward to our community engaging more with the space and to seeing it continue to evolve as a location that can serve many functions.
Commissioner Matt Dellinger
— When I walked into the building on Saturday, I almost cried. It was such an overwhelming feeling to witness the culmination of vision and support of past and present town boards, the hard work of town staff, and community engagement. I am so proud of how beautifully the historic features blended with the renovations. I thought to myself, “That’s so Davidson!” My favorite feature is the historic wall. I look forward to more history being added to the halls as we continue to capture the stories and experiences that make Davidson the unique town that it is.
Commissioner Tracy Mattison Brandon
— This was such an amazing day, and a perfect way to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the historic school building—recognizing and honoring our past by careful preservation of the building, and yet adapting it for modern 21st century needs and a new use. An investment in our past is always an investment in our future. It really was the perfect coming together of so many public policy solutions—the need to preserve the building and find a new use for it, the need for additional town hall space, the need for community room and office space, the need for parks and rec space, the need to expand for police and fire. It just all came together, and this project had the ability to meet multiple public policy goals for the town.
— I was so touched by the sheer number of people who said “thank you” to us throughout the day—thank you for recognizing the importance of this building in our community’s history and collective memory. This building is a huge part of the town of Davidson’s story, and to preserve it gives us a physical reminder of those stories and the collective power of storytelling and community memory.
Commissioner Autumn Rierson Michael
Additional comments, some as seen on social media. . .
“Great achievement. All four of my children attended school there.”
Former Commissioner Cary Johnston
“I can proudly say that my Dad and other DC students participated in the rebuilding of the school in 1948, that I attended elementary school there, and our kids attended elementary school there. A lot of memories.”
Former Commissioner Sandy Carnegie
“One of my great delights when my sons were in elementary school was getting to volunteer in their classrooms, as well as classrooms across the school. I became familiar with all its nooks and crannies. And my boys had happy and productive and important years at the school. When my older son was in high school, he even wrote about his kindergarten teacher, Paula Kelton, as the best teacher he ever had. Consequently, Davidson Elementary School was a sacred space for our family. And now it can become a sacred space for our entire community, from classes to public meetings and performances. Thank you to all those who made his happen. Now, let’s give it a new life in our town!”
Former Commissioner Margo Williams
“It was a big day for our neighbors to the north! Congratulations to the Town of Davidson for opening celebrations for their town hall and community center! Appreciate being with my fellow North Mecklenburg Mayors, as well as Rep. Alma Adams. Lots of old memories at the former Davidson High School!!”
Cornelius Mayor Woody Washam
“Wonderful Open House! The new Town Hall is amazing and full of many memories for many of us.”
“Very special day and project. Thank you to all who made this dream a reality!”
Leslie Stephenson Matz
“It was a special day for many, myself included.”
“What a fun day and wonderful celebration!”
Cissy Kelton Byrd
“It was such a well-planned & executed event. What fun to see so many familiar faces out to celebrate this historical piece of architecture – preserved so beautifully. What a great place to work! There are wonderful muses throughout that property & it seemed fitting for this to be the “new” town hall.”
Carlette Beam Peters
“This is fantastic! And a community landmark for generations to come.”
Teresa Ballas Meletiou
“A wonderful event…brought back a lot of memories.”
“It was wonderful to take a tour with you through our old school!”
Marianne Cheek Knapp
“Congratulations, Town of Davidson!”
Cristina Moeder Shaul
“Glad I decided to go! Great seeing you and the project. I loved that one of the classrooms remains. I cannot wait to see how the gym is restored.”
Karen Roberts Chandgie
“I tutored in the school my senior year (at Davidson College). It is a great building.”