East Spencer looks to develop former Rowan-Salisbury School Administration building
By Shavonne Walker
EAST SPENCER — The future of the former Rowan-Salisbury School Administration building, colloquially known in the town of East Spencer as the 1909 East Building, is full of possibilities, say town officials.
The town has recently prepared a packet for potential developers for adaptive reuse of the building, located in the center of town at 110 S. Long St., across from town hall. The plan details the history of the 4.35-acre property, the demography of the surrounding neighborhoods, its historic status and how the town has worked to develop the structure up until now.
The town is seeking letters of interest from real estate developers who could come up with a reuse of the property that would support downtown revitalization, said Mayor Barbara Mallett.
After acquiring the property in 2016, the town of East Spencer partnered with a developer to see if the building could be used for senior housing, but the deal never came to fruition.
“It doesn’t have to be senior housing. We are interested in getting it on the tax rolls to get a tax base added for our town,” said interim Town Administrator Phil Conrad.
Right now the building and property have been used by the community to host events and meetings. The front lawn is the site of a community garden.
The complex contains two schools, a garage, utility building, athletic field, parking lots and an expansive front lawn. The original building was a one-story structure built in 1909 that contained three classrooms that were then expanded in 1913 when the rear wing was widened and lengthened. The 1913 exterior brick wall reveals the addition as the brick is slightly lighter red. The town currently uses this addition as temporary storage.
The property is situated opposite the 1983-built town municipal building, the town fire station built in 1989 and the adjacent 1985-built town post office.
Conrad said the building has a lot of good character and history.
“I could see a lot of creative use there that would be great for the town,” he said.
History and expansion
The site housed the only public school for the town’s white youths from about 1900 until desegregation in 1969. The 1909 building served students from first grade through high school. However, when North Rowan High School was completed in 1958, the East Spencer Graded School housed only first-through eighth-grade classes. Over the course of the next decade or so, other schools opened and students transitioned to those sites until the fall of 1974 when fifth-grade through eighth were consolidated into North Rowan Middle School.
The second building on the site is a two-story Classical Revival-style building designed by Charlotte architect Charles C. Hook and erected in 1921.
In 1974, the Rowan-Salisbury School System converted the former school into office space, erecting faux wood paneling to partition off the walls, carpeting some of the hardwood floors and incorporating drop tiles to cover the original plaster ceilings.
The school system renovated the auditorium and removed the original seating in order to create a meeting room. The floor initially sloped down to the stage, but has since been leveled and a carpet-covered floor was placed over it. The top balcony area has a half-wall partition built that was used by the school system to store filing cabinets. The balcony seating has been removed, but the board-covered tier steps in the balcony of the auditorium remain.
The two buildings were expanded in 1937, with the north classroom block and a rear auditorium designed by architects Yoe, Northup and O’Brien. Both buildings are intact and increasingly rare examples of early 20th-century institutional architecture in Rowan County, according to the historic registry application the town completed in 2018.
The town of East Spencer began reversing some of the modifications in 2016 when it obtained the building, revealing some original finishes.
In September 2015, the town partnered with the UNC School of Government Development Finance Initiative to look at redevelopment options for the property.
The Development Finance Initiative group conducted a study for potential private uses that included residential, office and retail space.
In 2016, the Landmark Group, a development group based in Winston-Salem, was the lead developer on a project to renovate the building into senior housing. The town partnered with Landmark to develop the site into affordable housing for low- and moderate-income people. However, the developer was unable to pursue a low-income housing tax credit needed to redevelop the property.
The Landmark Group, at its own cost, completed the application for the national register of historic places.
Mayor Mallett said the development of the property fits in with the town’s revitalization plan in its downtown district.
Mallett said the town is still trying to see how it can use the space.
In March 2018, the town approved a resolution allowing a fee schedule for the building, known now as the 1909 East Building, when it is rented for educational, religious or similar community events.
During a recent meeting, the town included a budget amendment to cover utilities because costs were more than the board had budgeted for. The change had to be approved before the end of the fiscal year.
“That’s another strong reason to have someone occupy the property,” Conrad said.
Mallett said she feels as though once the community started to see the building used for events that’s when the excitement about it began.
She said no matter what is developed on the property, the town would still like to be able to have incorporated in the design, a community space or meeting room for the town residents to use.
Contact reporter Shavonne Walker at 704-797-4253.
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