NASA Launch in Washington, Without the Fire and Smoke

Published on 28 March 2024 at 09:20


       “You can all say now with pride you’ve been to a NASA launch,” Henry Harris informed a group gathered at the Fitzpatrick Hotel Thursday evening.

         Not, mind you, the multi-stage rocket, thundering-on-a-column-of-fire-into-orbit kind of launch, but the resurrection of the North Alexander School Association’s (NASA) decades-long effort to repurpose the 1897 city school building.

         Until the onset of COVID, the Association was making steady progress in renovating the building. “COVID was not kind to us, and our board languished,” says Henry Harris, who heads the Association.

         Efforts to rehab the building began in the early ‘90s, when local citizens organized to save the building from possible demolition. As Harris relates, “…it was in danger of demolition by neglect. It was an unused building and the school board, in their wisdom, I think, weren’t willing to spend a lot of money on a building they didn’t need, so it got boarded up. Every window was boarded for over 20 years, so it just sat there.”

         Much like its nearby contemporary, the Fitzpatrick Hotel — which sat on the Square unused for nearly 50 years and seemed impossible to fix up, until it was  —  “now we sit here in this fantastic building and the same thing can happen with the North Alexander School. You just go by and say ‘well nothing much is happening’.

         “The building is very much intact, ready to go. It does take a lot of work, a lot of energy, a lot of money…a lot of luck as well,” attorney and NASA project manager Doug Abramson told the gathering.

         In the years leading up to the pandemic interruption, the building had undergone a series of repairs: asbestos removal, eliminating decades of accumulated junk and debris, roof replacement, restoration of the bell tower, and a complete replacement of all windows.

         “For 20 years and even more, those windows were boarded up. And when those boards came down, that building smiled. It was just a whole different place…and that just got things rolling for a lot of us,” says Harris.

         So what’s in store for the school project? Doug Abramson says “a basic concept which we’ve talked about in the past is converting it into an arts and education center. A huge amount of planning has been done, but our efforts did flag during COVID. But it’s post-COVID now and we’ve gone back to our frenetic pace that we got rid of for a few years.”

         “We’ve got to get down to some realistic dreams,” Harris adds. “I’ll tell you a couple of mine: it has to be, needs to be an educational facility of some kind.” Perhaps a professional kitchen which could be used to teach culinary skills, and studio space for teaching art classes, or a digital media learning center; classrooms for adult education. Eventually upgrades to the adjoining Washington Little Theater facility, which is in the former high school gymnasium, could be in the plans.

         “We’ve had over the years great community support. The key really is partnering,” says Abramson.

         A model for the school project is the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center in Madison, GA. That building was designed and constructed in the same decade as the North Alexander School, in the identical architectural style. Their school remained in service until 1957, when the county’s schools were consolidated. In the early ‘60s, a local group saved the abandoned building from destruction. With assistance from the Woodruff Foundation, the school was repurposed for use as a center for the performing, visual and decorative arts, opening in July, 1976.

         The historic Washington building was open to the public for tours last weekend, so those interested could get a feel for how much work remains; though much has been done to preserve the structure, there remains a great deal of interior work to return the building back to its former state.


A North Alexander School timeline:


1896 — Bonds are issued for a new public school building in Washington. The building is designed by architect William Harrison Hunt of Chattanooga, in the Romanesque revival style. It’s built adjacent to the site of the former Female Seminary.


1897 — School opens and first commencement held in June.


1898 — Enrollment is 250. Eleventh grade added.


1912 — School granted “Class One, Group One” status by State.


1919 — Two-story addition to school approved; current Wilkes Co. BoE headquarters.


1930 — Gymnasium added, currently home to the  Washington Little Theater.


1956 —  New 8-12 school opened on East Street.


1971 — Last classes.


1991 —  NASA organized, BoE agrees to a 50-year lease for one dollar.


2004 — Listed on National Register of Historic Places


2010 — Preservation plan completed in conjunction with re:Form Architects of Atlanta


         A video of the March 23 North Alexander School open house is available on the Informer YouTube Channel.


See art rendering images of what could be done with the school, below.


Written by Richard Crabbe

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