If things go as Marvin Nunnally hopes, everyone in Athens will realize what a treasure the community has in the former Reese Street School, a two-story, 105-year-old building at Reese and Pope streets. And that realization will lead people to help the Masonic Lodge, which owns the former school, by donating their dollars to restore it.
The Athens Masonic Association is holding a black-tie gala on Apr. 6 at the Oconee Civic Center to raise money for the school’s restoration. There will be heavy hors d’oeuvres, music and dancing, with all funds raised going to the school building, says Nunnally.
The building—all 8,500 square feet—hasn’t changed much since the old Athens School District finished construction in 1914 and renowned educator Samuel Harris became its principal. It still has eight large rooms, high windows and a steam-heating system, as well as cedars on the property that no doubt surrounded it decades ago. In the early part of the history of the Reese Street School, when Athens High and Industrial was housed there and an 11th grade was added, it was the only high school in Georgia for black students. In 1922, it was the second such high school to be accredited.
The gym and other nearby outbuildings are gone, as are other buildings on Reese Street. Decades ago, the Reese Street and Hancock Avenue area were home to several schools, as well as to many of Athens’ most prominent African Americans, everyone from teachers to businesspeople to pastors and funeral parlor owners. Harris made sure the school offered vocational courses in carpentry, sewing and cooking, in addition to a rigorous academic curriculum. Athens native Richard Cornelius, whose sister attended the Reese Street School, knew many of the teachers who lived close by.
In 1956, Athens High and Industrial moved to a new building at the site of today’s H.T. Edwards complex on Dearing Extension. In 1960, the Reese Street School stopped operating as a school. In 1968, the Masons bought the building.
Nunnally estimates $250,000 or more will be needed to get the buildings up to snuff, with securing the roof being the first priority. Helping with the restoration project are John and Amy Kissane, the former director of the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation.
Amy Kissane talked about the building’s history at a Mar. 15 brown bag presentation at the Lyndon House sponsored by the ACHF. She said the Masons will be applying for a National Trust for Historic Preservation grant and designation as a National Historic Landmark, something only one building in Athens has—the Taylor Grady House. Once the Reese Street School is restored, Nunnally says, it will be “a learning lab, open to groups and the community. Anybody will be able to rent it, just like the Taylor Grady House.”
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