Historic Arundel center to reopen soon

Officials say former school might be occupied by the end of the month

April 03, 2000|By Amy Oakes | Amy Oakes,SUN STAFF

In the early 1920s, it was the only high school in Anne Arundel County for black children, and part of a vibrant hub of restaurants and clubs known locally as Annapolis' Harlem.

In the late 1960s, it became a community center, part of an urban renewal program to revitalize the neighborhood after businesses closed and people moved away.

In the late 1990s, it was a neighborhood blight with a leaky roof, crumbling plaster and rotting wood floors, but still an important part of the community, where kids played, families held wedding receptions and teen-agers gathered.

Through the years, Stanton Center on West Washington Street has been a significant part of local black history. For many, it's a source of pride, but it's also symbolic of a perceived division between the community and city government, which has struggled through the years to maintain one of its oldest buildings.

"People are attached to that building," said Kirby J. McKinney, the center's new executive director. "It's our roots."

When the city closed the community center two years ago for a nearly $3 million renovation and relocated its social programs, residents were concerned. Then, when the project fell nine months behind schedule, their worry turned into frustration.

After replacing the general contractor and dealing with the unforeseen problems of a century-old building, city officials say the center should open by the end of the month. Some of the social service programs could move in earlier.

Neighbors remain skeptical, but the city has allocated $10,000 for a grand opening. Local author Philip L. Brown, 91, plans to release a book documenting the history of the building to coincide with the opening.

"Once the Stanton Center opens, all those people who moved away will have a reason to come back," said McKinney, who is approached on the street for project updates. "It's going to be a real vital part of the community again."

It always has been.

By most accounts, the school was established in 1867 in Parole by the Freedman's Bureau, the federal agency developed to help newly freed slaves gain independence, and was named after Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Wiley H. Bates, who later had a high school named after him in Annapolis, was instrumental in convincing the city of the need for a school for black children.

Stanton Elementary School moved to West Washington Street in 1869, after President Andrew Johnson disbanded the Freedman's Bureau. Fifty years later, it was expanded to include higher grade levels.

It was the only high school for black students until Bates High School opened on Smithville Street in 1933. Younger pupils continued to attend Stanton School.

Brown attended each grade at Stanton School and returned there to teach, often in the same classrooms in which he spent his days as a student. His father, William H. Brown, was the school's first PTA president, and his sister was one of two in the school's first graduating class.

"The school was important to all of us," Brown said.

His wife, Rachel, taught at the school and marvels about how they taught without many materials.

When the Browns were approached by the mayor a few years ago to write a book about the school, it was easy. For 30 years, they had been collecting pieces of the school's history.

"We have it all right here," said Rachel Brown, sitting at her dining room table.

McKinney, 52, grew up a couple of doors down from Stanton School. He attended elementary and middle school there and spent much of his time sitting on the marble steps at what used to be the front of the school.

"We used to sit and play games all the time on those stairs," said McKinney, recalling his days growing up in the Clay Street neighborhood.

About this time, the neighborhood -- which used to be the heart of the 4th Ward -- was thriving. Clubs attracted national talents such as Duke Ellington, restaurants were packed and business was good.

"If you came to Annapolis and you were black, this is where you wanted to be," McKinney said.

Stanton School closed in 1964, when county schools were integrated, and the building fell into disrepair as most of the neighborhood declined. It was used for storage for four years before being converted into a community center -- an anchor to the Clay Street revitalization project.

The county turned the building over to the city of Annapolis in 1994 and the city promptly spent almost $300,000 on roof and window repairs. An ad hoc committee was established to assess the needs of the building, said Mayor Dean L. Johnson, who was then a Ward 2 alderman.

Major renovations were planned but were often met with obstacles. The building was falling apart. Holes were in the floor, the roof leaked, the old radiators didn't always work and paint was peeling.

Said McKinney: "It was a dump."

Work was to begin in 1997 but was delayed a year as the city waited for funding from the state. When the work did start and the center's programs relocated, more problems arose.

The construction was not finished by the scheduled date of completion in mid-1999.

Then the general contractor went bankrupt in December. A linoleum gym floor, which was put down rather than a rubber one, will have to be replaced.

And, Johnson said, "in a building that old, you don't know what you will run into."

When workers went to install an elevator, they found a rock formation 40 feet under the building. To make the ceiling of the basement high enough for public use, workers had to lower the floor by hand. A new electrical system was needed.

"It's been a series of minor aggravations that build on each other," Johnson said. "But I want to make sure it's done well."

The new Stanton Center will offer more, while preserving its treasured past. Additions include a commercial kitchen, modern offices, computer labs and a clinic with exam rooms.

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