|City/Town: • Montgomery|
|Location Class: • Educational|
|Built: • 1891 | Abandoned: • 2017|
|Historic Designation: • National Register of Historic Places (1982)|
|Status: • Abandoned|
|Photojournalist: • David Bulit|
The Sayre Street School is the oldest surviving public school building in Montgomery. Its history dates back to 1860 when a private boys’ school, the Franklin Academy, was established by W. H. Wilkinson on the site. Wilkinson was a graduate of Yale University and a teacher from Boston, Massachusetts. In less than a year though, Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter, prompting the start of the American Civil War. This may have also prompted Wilkinson to reportedly remark on the state of the education system in the South, remarks so seditious that he was investigated by a council of attorneys and businessmen headed by Henry William Hilliard in April 1861. By June 1863, the Franklin Academy was foreclosed and subsequently auctioned off. The building would continue operating as the Franklin Academy throughout the years following the war, though under different professors and only for a few years at a time before shutting down.
Chilton College was a private school for girls and young women that was established in Montgomery in 1866 by Mrs. Lavinia T. Bradford Chilton. The institution was named after her father-in-law William Parish Chilton, patriarch of the Chilton family and cousin to the Sayres. Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald would later attend Sayre Street School in 1910. Chilton College was originally located on Felder Avenue until 1870 when it purchased the building formerly occupied by the Franklin Academy. At the time, it was occupied by the Montgomery Female College owned by Dr. Samuel K. Cox, and it was that name that Chilton College would adopt. That same year, S. K. Cox moved to Christiansburg, Virginia after purchasing the Montgomery Female College there. In the months leading up to her death, Mrs. Chilton’s health slowly declined and she went to Eureka Springs, Arkansas in hopes that the famous “healing waters” would benefit her. She gradually grew worse and died there on October 16, 1881.
City purchases Chilton College building
The City Council, short on funds and unable to construct new buildings, began renting the property in the late-1870s for classrooms. With the improving economy of the 1880s, the city’s School Committee was able to purchase the lot, building, and all shares related to the Montgomery Female College. On June 24, 1885, the School Committee recommended that the upper floor chapel of the school building, now designated the Girls High School, be renovated by placing partitions to provide more classrooms. By this time, the City of Montgomery was renting out a wood-framed residence adjacent to the Girls High School and utilizing it as the Sayre Street Grammar School.
In 1888, the School Committee reported that all the rooms in the residence occupied by the school needed repairs and that only three of the ten rooms were adequate enough to house the increasing number of students. At the end of the 1889 school year, the Committee stated that the current buildings were “totally inadequate” and recommended the construction of a new building to replace the old ones. In 1891, Committee Chairman Alderman Watts presented a plan to the City Council for a new building and was granted approval for its construction.
Chilton College Demolished
The former Chilton College building though remained in use, despite the School Committee referencing its declining physical condition for the past decade. It wasn’t until 1906 that it was condemned and torn down by the city following years of public outcry calling for its demolition. The old building had been marked by a marble slab inscribed “Chilton College” and to commemorate its existence and also the educational work of Mrs. Chilton, the slab was placed at the base of the new Sayre Street School by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1910.
Sayre Street Grammar School
Before 1891, the Sayre Street Grammar School was located in the Gilmer House just south of the old Chilton College building. The residence though was never sufficient enough for school purposes as the rooms were small, overcrowded, and poorly ventilated. Designed and built by J. B. Worthington, the new Sayre Street School building was constructed in 1891 at a cost of $20,000 and served grades one through five.
Over the next decade, more schools were constructed and siphoned off of Sayre Street School’s student body such as the Herron Street School in 1893 and the Decatur Street School in 1901. Neither of these two school buildings exists today. In 1895, the Girls’ High School was relocated to Lawrence High School at the corner of Lawrence and High Streets, the site of the current Montgomery County main library. The Sayre Street School still used the Gilmer House as an overflow until 1906 when many of its students were transferred to the newly constructed Bellinger Heights School.
Investigation into school conditions
In 1906, a reporter for The Montgomery Advertiser conducted a private investigation of the conditions at Montgomery’s schools. It found that the Boys’ High School occupied an old dilapidated residence on Clayton Street known as the Billing House, formerly occupied by F. M. Billing. The building had no ventilation and was heated by a stove, the roof leaked, and plaster had fallen from the ceiling and walls. The Girl’s High School was found to be extremely overcrowded, having to use the school’s large auditorium as a classroom, and had a poor heating system that was in need of repairs. When Sidney Lanier High School was constructed in 1910 at the corner of McDonough Street and Scott Street, these two schools were both moved to this new school to form Montgomery’s first public co-educational school.
The Sayre Street School had “perhaps the poorest conditions to be found in the city…” according to the report. The building had no ventilation system so in order to get fresh air, teachers had to open the windows which also exposed students to the cold during the winter months. This was coupled with the school’s poor heating system which failed to offer proper heating in the colder weather. In several instances, the rooms were so cold that the school had to close down. The classrooms were also found to be overcrowded, an issue that was exacerbated by the demolition of the old Chilton College. The overcrowding was so dire, that the cellar where the school’s furnace was located was used as a classroom where forty-seven students of different grades were taught. This was despite the fact that Sayre Street School had transferred many of its students to another school just a few months earlier. The overcrowding, the poor ventilation, and the insufficient heating were the most glaring issues the school had. Other issues included a leaking roof, despite the roof having been repaired the year prior, and poor lighting in the hallways and staircases.
In 1927, a survey was conducted and it was recommended that no additions be made at the Sayre Street School. It was also recommended that the school be abandoned for elementary school purposes as soon as possible so that it be reused as the central administrative unit for the county school system. Instead, the school was renamed Chilton Elementary School in the early-1930s and served grades one through six.
It closed down in 1976 due to a shift in the neighborhood’s population and laws regarding integration from the Civil Rights Act. In 1981, Mouron and Ken Upchurch of W K. Upchurch Construction Company bought the property for $50,625. The Sayre Street School was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in February 1982. That same year, it was announced that the owners were planning on restoring the structure which had been boarded up since its closure. The architects for the renovations was Watson, Watson, Rutland/Architects, and the contractor was W. K. Upchurch Construction Company. The renovation included a new heating system, air-conditioning, plumbing and electrical system, as well as repairs to the exterior brickwork and windows.
After completion, the building was leased to Abbott Brothers Blueprint Company as the headquarters of their firm. It was purchased by the Lower Commerce St Historical Preservation Authority in 1998 for $195,000. The last business to operate there was Jean the Florist which had extremely negative reviews before its closure in 2017. The building is currently boarded up and has fallen into disrepair as it had done decades earlier.
The Montgomery Advertiser. (April 17, 1861). W. H. Wilkinson, Esq.
The Weekly Advertiser. (July 18, 1860). Catalogues
The Montgomery Advertiser. (November 4, 1906). CONDITIONS THAT SURROUND PUPILS IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS OF MONTGOMERY SHOWN BY INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATION
The Weekly Advertiser. (June 4, 1891). SCHOOL PROPERTY! It Is Worth a Hundred Thousand Dollars
The Montgomery Advertiser. (May 24, 1910). UNVEIL TABLET TO MRS. CHILTON
The Montgomery Advertiser. (September 22, 1906). SCHOOLS WILL OPEN MONDAY
The Montgomery Advertiser, Danny Lewis. (June 8, 1982). Sayre Street school building to be renovated