Earlier versions of this article about the demolition of a utility shed near Chantilly High School that students called the "spirit shed" and used as a canvas for artistic expression, incorrectly said that the Virginia Department of Transportation instructed AT&T to demolish the shed. AT&T made the decision. This version has been updated.
Chantilly High School mourns 'spirit shed,' a community's canvas for decades
They huddled in the dark at the edge of the school grounds Friday night, bundled in scarves and shivering in the cold. Candles didn't stand a chance in the howling wind, so the students and alumni of Chantilly High School in Fairfax County clutched bouquets of flowers and glow-sticks instead. The high school band played "Chantilly Lace" with half-frozen fingers for the dozens who had come together for a vigil to celebrate and remember what they had all loved and lost.
They had gathered to mourn a shed.
The Chantilly High School "spirit shed," an old utility building on the outskirts of school property, had served as an outlet for student expression for decades. Accumulated over 38 years, hundreds of layers of paint have displayed the names of graduating seniors, colorful birthday wishes, celebrations of school victories and memorials commemorating tragedies.
On Monday, without notice, the shed was torn down. For many people in the community, it was the first intimation that the structure hadn't actually belonged to the school. It turned out the iconic building was the property of AT&T - and it was demolished to make way for the widening of Stringfellow Road.
Greg Hudson, the 1988 graduate who organized the vigil, urged the band to keep playing as people continued to join the group.
"Play 'Chantilly Lace' again, one more time, for the shed!" he cried.
The sudden loss dealt an unexpectedly painful blow to the community. Students rushed to collect remnants of the demolished building, pocketing chunks of fused paint layers and shards of cinder block as if they were pieces of the Berlin Wall. The Purple Tide, the school newspaper, put the story on the front page along with a photo of the rubble. Memorial pages were created on Facebook , and various YouTube video tributes displayed photo montages of the shed and students through the years, set to the 1990 Scorpions ballad "Wind of Change."
Cradling a bouquet of white flowers and two battery-operated pillar candles, Jennifer Olin, a 1989 graduate who now lives in South Riding, said that she was surprised by the depth of her own reaction when she saw on Hudson's Facebook page that the shed had been torn down.
"Maybe it sounds strange to say, but I actually teared up," she said.
The shed was first claimed by the Chantilly High student body in 1973, after the school cracked down on seniors who had made it a tradition to spray-paint their graduating year on the football stadium entrance and baseball dugouts. The spirit shed eventually became the one semiofficial, adult-sanctioned place where it was okay for the kids to declare themselves to the world. It was a canvas, a blank slate. A safe space.
As the band quieted, several members of the group took turns speaking about the shed. They talked about the changing suburban landscape of Chantilly and Northern Virginia and how the building had seemed like one constant that would never go away. They expressed sorrow at its loss and hope that some of the salvaged pieces of the shed might be used in the construction of a replacement.
Jennifer Bishop, a 1991 graduate, stood with her arm around her daughter, Taylor Newby, a freshman at Chantilly High. Bishop kept a thick slab of dried paint from the wreckage after the shed was destroyed, she said.
"Each one of those paint layers is somebody's heart, somebody's cheering, somebody's tears," she said.
Taylor said the shed was a landmark of her childhood, and she remembers looking at old photographs of the building in her mother's yearbooks.
"You always see it when you drive by, and you can't wait to get here and paint it," she said. "It makes people feel so connected. I'm really sad that I won't be able to paint it."
Hudson held the Friday night vigil in the spot where the shed once stood and created the Facebook page that now has close to 2,000 fans. He has lived in the area all his life, and he remembers Chantilly prior to the construction boom in the mid-'80s and the era of rapid growth and demographic shifts that followed. He has watched the face of the shed evolve with the changing times in the years since he graduated.
When Hudson was in school, the shed broadcast lighthearted messages - "Happy Birthday Kelly!" or "Tammy + Chuck" scrawled between the names of popular bands. Sometimes the walls were simply works of art, like multicolored handprints covering all sides of the building.
"For old people like me, when we drive by it now, it symbolizes a much simpler and easier time," Hudson said. "Our biggest worries were decorating a shack or getting prepared for a pep rally. Ronald Reagan was president. No one really worried about things."
More recent iterations of the shed reflect lives that are no longer so insulated from violence and loss. The cinder blocks were covered in layers of red, white and blue paint to memorialize Sept. 11, 2001, and in maroon and orange after the shooting rampage at Virginia Tech. After a favorite faculty member's son was killed while serving in Iraq, students painted the walls to honor him.
Jane Muir, editor in chief of the school newspaper and senior class president, said she was heartbroken to see the destruction of the shed in her final year at the school. She remembered painting it for the first time when her soccer team went to the state championships.
"For celebrating, for mourning, for anything where we want to have a voice, we've always looked to the shed," she said.
Some trends were perennial; school sports teams always used the shed to declare notable victories. There were always birthday messages and farewells from graduating classes. Students always posed for pictures together in front of their handiwork. And the shed maintained an air of innocence - the doors were tightly shut from thick layers of paint, so there was no opportunity for debauchery within.
Muir said that class officers were working with the school to build a replacement. Hudson said that he was leading an effort to work with the school and alumni to restore a similar site for students - not just to resurrect an iconic landmark and maintain a sense of tradition, but because he thinks students need a place to express themselves now more than ever.
"There needs to be a place where kids can go and just be kids, where that's still allowed," he said. "We're so protective today over our kids. They need a place where they don't have to be bottled up."