Monday, October 18, 2010

Regaining Site

It's probably not too surprising to hear that nearly every structure in downtown Spartanburg is less than 130 years old. Go back to 1880 and you'd see that Spartanburg was a newly-chartered city of 3,000 residents, and the city looked forward to a bright future as textile-induced prosperity ushered along substantial improvements and expansion. Over the course of that 130 years, a ramshackle village evolved into a bustling Southern city. In the mean time, buildings have come and gone, and after over a century, any single site is likely to have supported a few generations of buildings.

Those layers are what make the walking tours fun. I love showing off the few nineteenth century buildings left downtown, but I also love showing images and talking about what's no longer around. Ideally, the tours give folks an impression of the layers in the downtown landscape: from Cherokee hunting ground to backwoods courthouse village to railroad hub and onwards. Walking through those layers equipped with photos and stories seems to get people a little more engaged and aware.

More often than not, any site's individual layers don't really connect with one another. It doesn't really mean anything that the 1787 log-framed courthouse stood where the traffic island west of the Morgan monument is now. It's interesting, but not meaningful, that an ironworks stood where the library's drop-off area is. But at least in one area, there seem to be coincidences between the different layers that make you wonder if the site itself might have some sort of intrinsic significance.

The specific spot I'm referring to lies on what is now St. John Street along the hill around the intersections with Converse Street and Liberty Street. Now the distinct landmarks there include the George Dean Johnson College of Business and Economics, the Chapman Cultural Center, and Barnet Park. All of these are relatively recent developments that grew out of the Renaissance Park idea of the 1990s. Peel back a layer, before the Renaissance Project, and you'd see the old National Guard armory, an automotive repair shop, a bar or two, and a paper retailer. Go back a few more layers and you'd find two mid-19th century buildings.

One of those buildings, precisely where the business school now sits, may have been originally built as a residence, but in later years was used as a school. For a time, it was the Spartanburg Male Academy, a private school for boys. In 1884, it was purchased by the city's early public school system and used as one of three graded schools, a recent educational innovation. It continued to serve that function along with the female graded school, located where the entrance to Barnet Park is now, until the city built the old Magnolia Street School, where the courthouse now stands. The third facility, the graded school for black children, was rented from Mt. Moriah Baptist Church.

Here are some photos of all this:

Male Academy/Graded School (white children, grades 4-7), northwest corner of Elm (now St. John) and Liberty.

Female Academy/Graded School (white children, grades 1-3), northeast corner of Elm (now St. John) and Converse.

1891 image of Mount Moriah, S. Liberty Street, where the graded school for "colored" children was held from 1884-1891.

Magnolia Street School, western side of Magnolia Street, the first building outside of Charleston built specifically for public education in SC.

1923 image of Dean Street School, graded school for "colored" children from 1891-1939. Site later redeveloped as Alexander Elementary.

After the school was built on Magnolia Street in 1890, the old male academy building went on to serve other functions until it was reinhabited by the Hastoc School, a private school for boys that had been established by Wofford professor Hugh T. Shockley, sometime before 1908. The Hastoc School first occupied a facility on the site of the Chapman Cultural Center, but later renovated and moved into the old graded school.

Students outside the Hastoc School, formerly the Male Academy and Graded School

Today, this site is still a center for education. The business school, finished in 2010, and the Chapman Cultural Center, finished in 2007, are both vital ingredients to the city's educational atmosphere. It's really quite remarkable that they sit on a site with such deep schooling roots. And it's entirely by coincidence. To my knowledge, no one at the decision-making level knew about these earlier establishments, and even if they had, it would have probably mattered very little amidst all the other considerations that go into site selection. In another culture, or at another time, place history might have been the tap root from which our decision tree grows. That's not the case in Spartanburg in 2010, although I dare to hope that we Spartans are a bit more tuned into the history of our surroundings than we were only a generation ago.
Chapman Cultural Center

Spartanburg Co. School District Seven: The First Ninety-Eight Years, by Ella Poats (1982)
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
Spartanburg County Historical Association

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