A dear, old school's charm offensive

Fondness, frugality mix in bid to rehab Annapolis gem

March 17, 2009|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

Annapolis Elementary School has its charms. Striking views of city landmarks, including the State House dome. Floors of Italian marble. And at the entrance, a bronze bell that is rung by the principal on the last day of the school year.

The bell is a gift from the Class of '98.

That's 1898.

Annapolis Elementary is among the oldest buildings still used to teach children in Maryland. And while its age brings complications - tiny classrooms and energy-leaking windows, to name two - it continues to withstand suggestions that it be closed in favor of a new building.

The county system's proposed construction budget contains $17.7 million for renovations to the 113-year-old school.

"Somebody would love to do something with that old building - a parking garage, build condos - but it would be an injustice to the city's history," said Enrique Melendez, president of the school board. "We want to keep the look and the feel of a historic school in downtown, a walking school. People were really scared that we would close it down and these kids would have to be bused. The community wants it there. And we want it there."

FOR THE RECORD - In a chart of the oldest schools in the state that accompanied an article yesterday on Annapolis Elementary School, the former Ridge special-education facility in Baltimore County should not have been listed. The building that housed the school still exists, but it is no longer used as a school.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the errors.

Over the decades, school officials have pitched the idea of abandoning the building or razing it and starting from scratch. Its aging infrastructure, plummeting enrollment and location on valuable land near the city's waterfront have all been floated as reasons to close the school.

Like other aging school buildings across the state, such as Booker T. Washington Junior High in Baltimore, which also was built in 1895, Annapolis Elementary has survived, in part, due to a fierce contingent of public supporters who view the school as a community landmark. But unique to Annapolis Elementary is its location in the city's Historic District, making any changes to the school subject to review by the Historic Preservation Commission.

"We love the historic character," said Sarah Williamson, president of the school's PTA and an alumna, during a contentious school board meeting to discuss plans for the school. "It enhances the vibrancy of our neighborhood. This is a true gift - having our own community school."

But there are complications. The old windows cannot be replaced, per the city's Historic Preservation statute. Some of the classrooms are tiny, measuring just 360 square feet. In a newer school building in the county, classrooms are nearly three times that size.

Wiring for Internet, phones and other lines lies atop the walls in many of the rooms. The exterior shows its age in cracks in the brick.

The school has undergone significant renovations, including an addition in 1948 and a new gymnasium in 1982.

And now, in the current economic climate, some have questioned the rationale for spending to renovate a century-old school. The proposed improvements - including new fire alarm and sewer systems, a breezeway linking the school to another old building on campus, and replacing parts of the heating and ventilation system - have been approved by Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell and the school board. But County Executive John R. Leopold and the County Council have said that construction projects will be difficult to approve. Eugene Peterson, the lone member of the board to vote against the project, questioned how the county would come up with the money.

The school's beginnings are well-documented. The land at 180 Greene St. was first owned by an early 18th-century merchant before it passed to an unlicensed doctor and slaveholder, according to records from the Maryland Historic Trust.

Francis "Frank" Henry Stockett bought the property in July 1862. He lived in a brick home there with his wife and 10 children. In 1875, unable to pay the mortgage, he was forced to put the property in a deed of trust. On Jan. 28, 1887, Stockett sold the land to the Anne Arundel County Board of School Commissions. The brick schoolhouse was built in 1895, and what was then Annapolis Grammar School opened the next year, its teachers all women.

In its early days, the children of the Filipino kitchen workers that toiled at the Naval Academy attended the grammar school. Jessie Hurst Childs began attending the school in 1900, according to an account she wrote in the Sun Magazine in 1974. Childs recalled that there was no cafeteria then, and some students came to school with "sandwiches of butter with a sprinkle of sugar." Students were "in general well behaved," though she recalled that corporal punishment was used from time to time.

"I remember an incident where a principal whipped a young boy who left school because his home was burning," Childs wrote. "He had not been granted permission!"

Emily Peake remembers the desks bolted to the floor, the inkwell in a nook on the desk, when she attended class there in the early 1930s. Her mother, who died in 1984, attended school there, too.

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