For some seniors, Wiley H. Bates Heritage Park is more than a new home - it's their alma mater

Homecoming revisited

September 06, 2006|By JONI GUHNE | JONI GUHNE,Special to The Sun

The halls of the old Wiley H. Bates High School on the corner of Smithville Street and South Villa Avenue are ringing with talk and laughter again.

As part of a $27 million transformation of the brick building in Annapolis, 71 apartments for seniors have been carved from the two-story classroom wing. About 60 percent of the occupants are proud graduates of the former Anne Arundel County high school for black students.

"I started out here [as a student at Bates]," said the Class of 1947's Myrtle Scott Johnson, adding with satisfaction, "and I'm ending my years here."

She is just an element of the history echoing throughout the Wiley H. Bates Heritage Park, which officially opens Friday. The long-awaited project features, along with the senior housing, the county's largest senior center, its largest chapter of the Boys and Girls Club, ball fields and a courtyard memorial area dedicated to the Annapolis businessman whose name graces the complex.

Wiley H. Bates was born a slave in 1859 and became an Annapolis alderman and one of the city's wealthiest and most respected businessmen in the early 20th century. Throughout his life, he was dedicated to improving the lives of his fellow African-Americans.

He helped form the county's first black PTA at Annapolis' Stanton School. In 1928, Bates and the PTA each put down $500 toward the $2,500 needed to buy 2 acres to build a high school. Another 5 adjacent acres were later purchased. The finished school opened in 1931.

Carl O. Snowden, a civil rights activist and former alderman who attended the former Bates junior high, said that students living under segregation developed a tightness and camaraderie. It is no wonder, then, that Marjorie Gibson, of the Class of 1937, still likes to get together with her remaining 18 classmates.

She fondly recalls the "fabulous" teachers and education she received at Bates before she went on to graduate from the Fleet Business School.

"Determination has made me play the hand I was dealt," she said.

When desegregation became law, the school was used for 15 years as an integrated junior high school. Bates was closed for good in 1981.

Since then, the community has repeatedly sought to reopen the school for public use.

When the school and its surrounding ballfields were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994, discussions about its redevelopment were rekindled. With financial support from the state, the county and the city of Annapolis, and the backing of County Executive Janet S. Owens, the first phase of redevelopment began in the fall of 1999.

"It's been 10 years of concentrated effort," said Kathleen Koch, executive director of Arundel Community Development Services. "My job was to make the project happen."

It took 18 months of construction to shore up the sagging, water-damaged structure, salvage original wood and terrazzo flooring when possible, and retain much of the 1950s cream wall tiles, all the while preserving historic details such as light fixtures and water fountains.

The original floor plan - the 1931 structure was added to in 1948 and in the early 1950s - guided the renovation: The shop wing made way for the Annapolis Senior Center, and the old cafeteria and its surroundings were perfect spaces to refit for kids in the Boys & Girls Club.

Interior brick walls of the school's original library were stripped and cleaned to produce a surprisingly modern look for the Wiley H. Bates Legacy Center, a display and meeting area.

The first project to reach completion was the conversion of the classroom wing into apartments for low- and medium-income seniors.

Among them is Barbara Butler, who graduated in 1960. Butler grew up in what was then called Camp Parole.

Butler remembers how students respected their teachers when she attended Bates. "You definitely did your homework," she said. "Teachers and parents expected it of you."

The students "all looked out for each other," said Butler, as she passed slices of strawberry layer cake to her fellow students gathered in the hall. "You see Michael there," she said, indicating a senior citizen sitting nearby. "He was a big football star and very handsome."

Outside the apartment wing, in the center of the landscaped entry courtyard surrounded by restored brick facades, one wing with tall arched windows and doors of the 1930s and one with the simpler lines of the 1950s, stands the school's original flagpole.

Bricks engraved with the names of benefactors who contributed to the restoration project surround the flagpole and pave the entrance to the 1930s wing.

Thanks to the coordinated efforts of architects, designers, engineers and staff, the 22,500-square-foot Annapolis Senior Center is modern while maintaining its ties to history.

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