Carver School gets a stay

By Christy Goodman
Thursday, December 9, 2010

The old Carver School and former William Thomas American Legion Post 129 on North Fayette Street in Alexandria has been saved from demolition as part of a settlement among Alexandria residents, the city and developer William Cromley.

The Alexandria residents and preservationists sued the city a year ago, claiming the city had not followed rules for the demolition of a historic site. The suit also claimed that the city had violated residents' civil rights by not preserving the property, which is part of the Parker-Gray historic district, and other African American institutions.

"I signed up because everything in this neighborhood the blacks have had, they have taken down and destroyed," said Gladys V. Wair, 88, one of the residents who brought the lawsuit. "I'm up in age and the Parker-Gray School and the things we had coming up, they just took everything . . . that meant something to us."

Gwen Day Fuller, a former Carver Nursery School student, agreed and said, "I just feel it should be saved, if at all possible."

The settlement states that a historical preservation organization or someone associated with preservation can hold the option to buy the old yellow building for $675,000 for the next two years. A steering committee, composed of representatives from the city, the plaintiff group and an outside preservation organization holding the option to buy the property, will be set up to review potential buyers and their preservation plans.

If no buyers are found, the building's fate will be up to Cromley, its owner.

"My main objective was to save the building," said Boyd Walker of the Greater Alexandria Preservation Alliance. "Being able to observe and walk by a building is a testament to the history that future generations can appreciate."

The building was constructed in 1944 as the Carver Nursery School, to care and educate children of black families during World War II. It was turned into an American Legion post, named for the first African American from Alexandria killed in World War I. That post served as a gathering place for the surrounding segregated African American community.

Many residents remember the site for more recent loud parties and sometimes crime, not as a meeting house in the middle of a historically black community in the 1950s and 1960s.

"I remember when it was putting on things - oratorical contests, beauty pageants for the young ladies. I remember when one of my friends was involved with a pretty innovative connection between the African American youth who were part of the American Legion's program and the white kids who were part of the white American Legion's program [and they] joined at a summer camp," said Jim Henson, 74, who took part in some of the city hearings but did not participate in the lawsuit. He said the city's demolition process was rushed and not enough weight had been given to the building's historical significance.

The old legion building was listed by Preservation Virginia as one of the most endangered historic buildings in the commonwealth this year.

Cromley, known for preserving buildings and remodeling interiors for new uses, was awarded the demolition permit to construct condominium units. As an offshoot of the settlement, he created the option for a historic preservation organization to hold the property for the next two years.

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