Harris Neck Schoolhouse: Honoring History through Design

In 1915, Booker T. Washington, co-founder of Alabama’s famed Tuskegee Institute, formed a partnership with Chicago philanthropist and businessman Julius Rosenwald, part owner of Sears, Roebuck & Company. This partnership helped to advance Washington’s vision of building quality schools for African American children in the deeply segregated South. The result of this collaboration was an unprecedented public school-building program, eventually creating more than 5,000 new schools and vocational shops for 700,000 children in 15 states. Late Georgia Congressman John Lewis and poet Maya Angelou are among the alumni of this education movement.

Harris Neck Schoolhouse, built around 1920 in Townsend, Georgia, is one of four original schoolhouses built in McIntosh County between 1920 and 1931. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation unconstitutional in 1954, the segregated school was deemed obsolete. Today, the site where the original schoolhouse once stood now sits vacant located in what is now the Harris Neck Wildlife Refuge.

Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge. Credit U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Becky Skiba

Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge. Credit U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Becky Skiba

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) is seeking to replicate the schoolhouse as close to the original as possible. But what exactly did the original look like? No one knows for sure.

“Our architects researched the history of these buildings in the South Carolina / Georgia area to get ideas of what this building probably looked like,” said Stephanie Cox, Pond’s Project Manager. “No one has a painting, drawing, or photograph of the original schoolhouse at this location.”

The original schoolhouse was believed to have been a Rosenwald building. The Tuskegee Institute plans for the earliest of the Rosenwald buildings shows design options for a school with one teacher, two schemes for a school with five teachers, an industrial building, and two teacher “cottages.” A few of the innovations incorporated into the designs included large windows to maximize daylighting, back-to-back rooms with transoms for natural ventilation, and individual unique site conditions to orient the buildings. With the most architecturally advanced school plans of that time, these buildings were initially designed by architect Robert Taylor who was the first known black graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge Schoolhouse Concept Front

Rendering of the front view of the schoolhouse design concept

Based on this historical information and typical layouts from the surrounding area, Pond developed conceptual architectural designs for a replica of a historic schoolhouse and historical narrative, including use of period materials, building proportions, general floor plan, and site orientation.

Pond combined research efforts with the USFWS to find more information about how the original schoolhouse was built. When our team submitted renderings, the USFWS archaeologist and other stakeholders reviewed and returned feedback, and our team would schedule review calls to discuss modifications.

“This client came to us based on previous projects we’ve done with them,” Cox said. “They presented a dream/wish and asked, ‘How can we do this?’ and ‘Where do we start?’ It’s very rewarding to help a client make their vision become reality and see the excitement it can bring to a group of people dedicated to the mission.”

A Nod to the Past with a Modern Spin

Once built, the schoolhouse will be accessible and safe to all who wish to visit in compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) / Architectural Barriers Act (ABA), energy standards, and modern code requirements. A covered porch, entry vestibule, large classroom (including a folding partition to split the room into two classrooms), resource room, full kitchen with all major appliances and cabinetry, two restrooms, and storage room will provide useful educational and meeting space.

As a nod to the original structure, exterior features will include a north/south orientation to maximize daylighting; lap siding on insulated wood-framed walls; seamed metal roof; oversized, energy-efficient, divided windows/transoms for natural light and ventilation; false brick chimneys; brick foundation piers with elevated, insulated floor and crawl space for natural ventilation; and historically accurate panel doors.


Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge Schoolhouse Concept Interior

Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge Schoolhouse Concept Interior

The interior of the building was thoughtfully designed featuring high ceilings; operable transom windows between rooms; historically accurate panel doors and finishes; wood flooring, baseboards, picture rail, wainscotting, and bead boards; classic schoolhouse style pendant lighting; retractable audiovisual display screen; pot belly stove; and chalkboards.

“It’s exciting to help others create a usable space that can also serve as an educational tool itself,” Cox said. “It will bring space historically significant to the area and be useful for the community.”

Once complete, the schoolhouse will serve as an accessible space for the community for educational and meeting purposes, but also a powerful place to reflect on the legacy of the impactful partnership between Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald who fought for progress and access to education for all.

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