When the renovations are finished, the pressed wood tiles in the ceiling won't crash to the ground anymore. The six-foot mound of bleacher sections rusting in the middle of the auditorium will be gone. The cobwebs will be cleaned out and the cracked windows repaired.
What will remain when the former George Washington Carver School in Purcellville reopens as a seniors center in 2006 will be the handwritten cards with the words "first grade," "second grade" -- all the way through "seventh grade" -- lovingly spelled out in careful lettering for young eyes and tacked above the wooden bookcases in the library.
"I have a real soft spot in my heart for this building," said Mattie L. Lassiter, 68, one of the leaders of the four-year-old project to renovate the old brick schoolhouse. "We didn't run or skip in this building; we didn't even put our hands on the wall. The heart of the black community was this school."
The Carver School, which opened in January 1948 with 250 students, was the first modern elementary school in Loudoun County for blacks. It was closed in 1968 when the county's schools were integrated and was used as a storage facility by the school system for more than three decades.
Last Thursday, the Purcellville Planning Commission granted a zoning permit, the last step before renovations could begin.
The new Carver Center, to be operated by the Loudoun County Area Agency on Aging, will be the third seniors center in the county. But it will be the first to offer both adult day care as well as activities and entertainment for active seniors over 55. On evenings and weekends, it will be available for other community uses.
"Until this project came on board, western Loudoun was being cut off from much of Loudoun's senior services," said Debbie Heimburger, the county employee overseeing the project. "We realize that people live longer when they are able to communicate and be in contact with other seniors."
Lassiter has been pushing to turn her former school into a seniors center since 2000. She helped form the Friends of the Carver Center, which lobbied the county to preserve and refurbish the school. Voters approved the $5.3 million renovation project in a 2001 bond referendum.
"It's been sitting here all these years and slowly dying," said Lassiter, who married her Carver School sweetheart in 1987, after her first marriage ended in divorce. "I would come and walk around this building, and it just broke my heart."
At the time, the school auditorium was piled high with motors, pipes, tires, school desks and musical equipment. For years, the stage was used as a book depository, and eventually a 12-foot-by-12-inch beam beneath broke. Wall-to-wall shelves in classrooms were laden with bins of construction tools.
"You could not even get in here," Heimburger said. Even after a surplus sale eliminated most items, she said, it took three tractor-trailers to remove the goods left at the school. "What wasn't stored in here would be a much shorter list than what was."
Work on the school is expected to begin in January and take about a year. Many of school's special features -- quarter-inch-thick slates used as chalkboards, closets with coat hooks, soapstone siding from the girl's bathroom and a kid-height water fountain -- will be preserved and incorporated in new locations within the center. The square windows will be replaced with modern panes designed to look like the originals, as will the distinctive lamp globes used in most of the classrooms.
"We want it to look like the schoolhouse it once was," said Heimburger, who also is planning such modern amenities as a computer room, an exercise room and a crafts room. The auditorium will be revamped with a drop-down projector and screen, and enhanced audiovisual devices will be available, she said.
At one point there was talk of converting the old library into a bathroom, but Lassiter fought to keep it as glass-encased educational center with displays telling the story of Carver School. "Anyone who comes into the building will be able to find out its history," Lassiter said.
The seventh-grade classroom Lassiter attended for two years -- because of too much "goofing," she said -- will become a state-of-the-art kitchen. The cafeteria and the senior programs of the Loudoun Valley Community Center will move to the Carver Center. Its daily lunch offerings, however, will be hard pressed to compare with the rich beef stew, baked beans and spaghetti and meatballs Lassiter remembers enjoying with her classmates.
The Friends of the Carver Center meet at the Loudoun Valley Community Center, 320 W. School St., Purcellville, on the second Tuesday of each month at 1:30 p.m. Donations can be sent to PO Box 1260, Purcellville, Va. 20134, or call 703-737-8683.
On Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., The Friends of the Carver Center will hold a picnic at the Loudoun Valley Community Center to celebrate emancipation and to encourage former students and other community members to get involved in the project, whether by donating Carver memorabilia or money to the Friends of the Carver Center. There will be an old-fashioned cookout, music and a playground for children. Suggested $4 donation for lunch. 703-737-8683.