East Clinton to Providence Classical: A preservation case study

single-meta-cal February 6, 2017

Imagine the moments of tension and wonder. Like a nervous game-show contestant, what would be revealed?

Slowly, surely the workers began peeling up the old, worn carpet inside the ancient school building. With each careful removal, a gorgeous hardwood floor appeared, only needing some polish and tender loving care.

It was a “wow!” moment for the school community.

Symbolic, really.

So much charm and beauty, revealed after hours of work and hope and dedication to a cause.

The East Clinton School building in Huntsville’s Historic District was built in 1938 on 3.6-acre parcel of land that has been home to four schools. However, Huntsville City Schools decided to close the school, which had grown outmoded for its use.

Developers swooped in, eager for the property once the building was demolished.

But, as Jessica White, Historic Preservation Consultant for the City of Huntsville puts it, “The community rallied and there was a huge groundswell of commitment to save it. And it stopped the bulldozers.”

The “Save East Clinton School” campaign, inaugurated by Margaret Watson, indeed saved the building – and gave it new life.

It is now home to Providence Classical School, a private academy of some 250 students from K-through-12, which moved into the location in the summer of 2013.

Preserving the property was important on many levels, White says.

First, there is the architectural aspect.

“It’s an Art Deco style, and there are few Art Deco buildings in Huntsville,” she says. “It’s a wonderful example of that style.”

Second, there is the historic aspect.

“This is a tie to President (Franklin) Roosevelt’s New Deal era,” White says. “It was built with the WPA (Works Progress Administration) project that was formed to build public buildings and put folks back to work after the Depression.

“The WPA history is important, but so is the civil rights movement that the school played a role in,” she says.

In September 1963, East Clinton was one of three previously all-white Huntsville elementary schools to integrate.

The land was first home to Green Academy, chartered in 1812. After it was occupied by northern troops during the Civil War, it was burned in 1864. A new building rose in its place and in 1882 became part of the fledgling Huntsville School System. That building was demolished in 1937, setting the stage for the WPA creation that still stands.

From above, the building holds the shape of a gigantic E, with a long spine running along the front of the school, parallel to Clinton Ave. Three hallways extend from the main hallway, with small, grassy courtyards in between.

There are steel-framed windows that have been refurbished and red brick walls are exposed in many classrooms and offices. In the renovation, functional old-style gray chalkboards were discovered, and they’re used rather than the whiteboards currently in vogue in most places. The only major construction effort that was required was replacing the roof.

Obviously, Providence Classical has its fingerprints on the grand old building, signifying change. But it has taken great pains to pay tribute to the past. There are photo displays of the building in various incarnations. There is a tribute to the community effort that saved it. There is a timeline that ties a recent Providence student to his ancestors who were in the original Green Academy.

And above the entrance, saved from the bulldozers and saved as an important symbol, the words EAST CLINTON SCHOOL proudly stand in foot-high Art Deco lettering.