|City/Town: • Birmingham
|Location Class: • Educational
|Built: • 1888 | Abandoned: • 2002
|Historic Designation: • National Register of Historic Places (1976)
|Status: • Abandoned
|Photojournalist: • David Bulit
Table of Contents
Originally known as the Free School, the Powell School was Birmingham’s first public school as well as the city’s oldest surviving school. The school was named after Colonel James R. Powell, Birmingham’s first elected mayor and the first president of the Elyton Land Company which founded the city in 1871. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
The Free School
In 1873, a group of citizens approached Colonel John T. Terry, who was serving as the city attorney at the time, for help in establishing a free school in order to attract residents to the relatively new city. He approached James Powell with this proposal and secured a plot of land far “out in the country“. Donated by the city, the land was to be used only for the purpose of a free school for white children residing in Birmingham and those within half a mile of the city limits. The school was to be taught by only white teachers. If the land was to be used for any other purpose, the land would revert back to the Elyton Land Company or its successors.
John Terry and Charles Linn, a local banker and an industrialist, began raising funds to build a schoolhouse. When elected Mayor of Birmingham, Powell donated his salary as Mayor for the school’s use, along with fines collected through the Birmingham Police Court. According to legend, Powell took out a loan needed to complete construction using a tailored suit as collateral. Appreciative of this gesture, the children of the school presented Powell with another tailored suit.
On March 1, 1874, the Free School, a modest four-classroom brick building, was dedicated. $1.50 fees were charged per year to attend the “free school”, but the fees were reduced gradually in the following years until they were dropped completely. It remained the only public school in Birmingham until 1883 when it became a high school as other public schools for lower grades had been built.
In 1886, a fire damaged the school building and it was declared unsafe. An adjoining lot was purchased and a plan was made for a new schoolhouse. The new school building, named Powell School per John Terry’s suggestion, was completed in 1888 and at the time, was considered “the most modern and the best equipped elementary school in the South”. By 1923 however, the school was considered obsolete according to a study conducted as the building lacked a lunchroom and an auditorium, and was badly overcrowded, but it was noted that it was in much better shape than many other schools in the city. The study recommended adding a gymnasium, an auditorium, and additional classrooms.
Following a fire that destroyed the Barker Elementary School in 1941, Henley School’s PTA president Harry Singler labeled Powell and Henley Schools as “firetraps” and suggested that they should be torn down and replaced with a single centralized school building, preferably somewhere downtown near the Powell School. Parents weren’t fond of the idea of having their children share classrooms with other children from the newly-open Central City Housing Project. Others suggested constructing the new school on the site of the Barker School. Instead, the insurance payout from the fire was used to expand the F. D. MacArthur School as well as an addition for the Powell School in 1951 consisting of a lunchroom, an auditorium, and classrooms. The stairwells were also fireproofed and the lighting throughout the building was modernized.
Showing signs of disrepair, there were talks of tearing the building down in the 1960s but preservationists argued its historic value and in 1969, the brick exterior was sandblasted and the joints were rechinked with new mortar. The building’s future was threatened once more in November 1980 when a structural evaluation was done on the building due to its declining structural stability. The school board president suggested tearing the building down instead of repairing the aging structure, but thanks to the help of the Birmingham Historical Society, the Board won a grant from the Alabama Historical Commission to help with repairs.
With the redevelopment of the nearby Metropolitan Gardens housing project, enrollment at the Powell School had dropped by half and a decision was made to close down the school in 2002. There have been many proposals on what to do with the building including converting it into a teaching laboratory and historical archive, converting it into an adult education center, or simply donating the building to a private school, but there was no follow-through on any of these proposals.
Destruction by fire
On January 7, 2011, a fire began on the third floor of the building causing the roof and upper floors to collapse. Following the fire, there was a dispute over the ownership of the building. Barber Companies, the successors to the Elyton Land Company, argued that since the property was no longer being used as a school, the title should revert back to them, but it wasn’t long after before they signed a quit-claim deed, giving ownership of the property to the city.
A property inspector informed the city that the building was not structurally sound enough to be saved, and it was found out that the Board of Education didn’t carry insurance on the building, leaving the city with very few options. Mayor William Bell made the decision to wait six months for a viable rehabilitation plan before proceeding with demolition leaving the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation in charge of forming the plan. In October 2013, the Trust announced plans that a developer of the Park Place Hope VI mixed-income community surrounding the school will be purchasing the school and converting it into apartments. The project was awarded a $3.7 million loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 108 Loan Guarantee Program. That project has yet to materialize.