Durhams Chapel School Building Restored

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Alvin Thurman looked out the back window of the Durham’s Chapel Rosenwald School house last Monday and recalled playing baseball on the field behind the school. It’s been a few years and the ball field is now just a field across Highway 31E, but he had no problem in pointing out where he spent many days of his childhood.

Memories of the two-room school may be a little easier to recall now that a $40,000 renovation of the landmark has been completed to restore the building to its original condition.

Members of the Durham’s Chapel community gather around the coal stove in the recently renovated Durham’s Chapel school house. Pictured are (l-r) Lillie Patterson, Maggie Brown, Kimberly Barr, Willie Barr, Alvin Thurman, Dorothy Rogan, Pastor William Rogan, Isaiah Dunn, and Roberta Gardener. The coal stove is symbolic today but was used for heat at the school house. Of the group, Brown, Patterson, Gardener and Thurman all attended the school as children. Photos by Randy Cline/THE GALLATIN NEWS

“We worked together on this project, all of us,” said Maggie Brown, speaking of a group of community members who gathered at the school house on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  “We were down here when the weather was cold, and we were down here when it was hot. We are proud to get it fixed up.”

The school was built in 1923 at a cost of $3,750. The African-American community raised the first $1,525, another $1,525 came from public county funds, and $700 came from the Rosenwald Fund which donated millions to support the education of African American children in the rural South. It was established by Julius Rosenwald, part-owner of Sears, Roebuck and Company.

The school was closed due to low enrollment in the early 1960s and ownership of the building was transferred to Durham's Chapel Community Club.

William Rogan, pastor of Durham’s Chapel Baptist Church, said the building had been dilapidated a long time and would now be a benefit to the community. “We thank each and every one for the wonderful job and all the work that was done,” he said.

“I was raised in this community, still live here and spent all of my time here,” said Durham’s Chapel resident Roberta Gardener. “I went to school eight years here and I’m really proud to see this done.”

According to an article prepared by Middle Tennessee State University History professor Dr. Mary Hoffscwelle and Anne-Leslie Owens, programs manager for MTSU Center for Historic Preservation, Durham's Chapel was one of several African-American communities established c. 1870 with the founding of its church and cemetery. The Reverend Peter Vertrees, a mulatto who played a crucial role in establishing African American churches and schools in Sumner County from emancipation until his death in 1926, founded Durham's Chapel Baptist Church (now located across the road from the school) in 1866. A local resident named Rodney Durham donated the land for the church. Previous schools stood on this site before the Rosenwald School was built in 1923.

Owens explained her involvement in the restoration project. “I first became aware of Durham's Chapel Rosenwald School in the late-1990s while surveying churches for the MTSU Center for Historic Preservation's Rural African-American Church Survey Project, she said. “Since that time, the Center was worked with the Durham's Chapel Community Club to document the school's history and address restoration needs.”

Alvin Thurman (left) checks out the old water pump still in place at Durham’s Chapel Community Center with Isaiah Dunn.

“In 2005, a team of students and faculty from the MTSU Center for Historic Preservation authored a National Register of Historic Places nomination; the school was officially listed in the National Register in 2006. In 2008, MTSU students under the direction of Dr. Carroll Van West, director of the MTSU Center for Historic Preservation, investigated the building and its history and provided recommendations on restoration and funding.”

In 2010, Owens said, several organizations came together to apply for funds offered to Rosenwald School through the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The MTSU Center for Historic Preservation wrote the grant application and, once awarded, provided the required reports. The Tennessee Preservation Trust (TPT), the statewide preservation organization, was the grant applicant. TPT managed the finances for the project. Paul Hoffman, a former TPT employee and former graduate research assistant at the MTSU Center for Historic Preservation, served as the project manager. Paul had assisted on a 2008 Lowe's award, the Cairo Rosenwald School, also in Sumner County. Throughout the Durham's Chapel project, many local organizations offered valuable support, including Brad Penick and the Sumner County Sheriff's Office, local preservationist John Garrott, and members of the Durham's Chapel Community Club.

“My portion as project manager was very rewarding, especially when members of the community who attended the school stopped by to tell us about their experience there,” said Hoffman. “When the folks who went to school there told me how happy they were to see us improving the building, it really put the work in perspective. It was a privilege to work on a local landmark that really seems to matter to its community.”

Completed in November 2011, the Lowe's Charitable and Education Foundation grant successfully provided for critical stabilization and conservation to return the Durham's Chapel Rosenwald School to its 1923 appearance and enhancements to increase its functionality and adaptive reuse as a community center. Work on the exterior included rebuilding damaged sections of the foundation, reconnecting the balloon framing, repairing and replacing windows, and repairing siding.

Interior work included stripping and refinishing the floor, plaster repair, replacement of door hardware, and general carpentry. Special care was given to utilizing as much original building fabric as possible; repairing what could successfully be repaired and replacing building elements only when necessary.

To improve the functionality of the former school as a meeting space, several important improvements were made. The entire electrical system was upgraded to bring the building up to code. A wall heating and air conditioning unit and ceiling fans were added in both classrooms to provide climate control options year round. Repairs were made to both front sidewalks. The steps to the southernmost front door were covered to create a ramp access to comply with American with Disabilities Act.

The Durham’s Chapel Community Club is planning a “Community Homecoming” event for 2012 to celebrate the restored school and its rich history. Alumni and their families, people who live in the surrounding area, those who worked on the project, and those associated with the partnering organizations will be invited. The Durham’s Chapel Community Club organizers expect a crowd of 75 to 100 people. A fish fry and bake sale are some of the fundraising events planned to raise monies. The Durham’s Chapel Community Club also intends to have regular club meeting, using dues for ongoing maintenance and utility bills.

by Randy Cline

Tennessee Preservation Trust - P.O. Box 24373 - Nashville, TN 37202 - (615) 963-1255 - tnprestr@yahoo.com

2009 Tennessee Preservation Trust