Gymnasium gets preliminary OK for historical designation

Published 11:52 am Thursday, August 4, 2016

This is how the Charles Street gymnasium looks today. Clyde Parker, a local historian, has been working to get the building considered for listing on the Virginia Landmarks Register and National Register of Historic Places.

This is how the Charles Street gymnasium looks today. Clyde Parker, a local historian, has been working to get the building considered for listing on the Virginia Landmarks Register and National Register of Historic Places.

by Clyde Parker

Back in June, I delivered to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources in Richmond an application and nomination on behalf of the Charles Street Gymnasium requesting that the property be considered for listing on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places.

The application included the history of the property, present use of the property, external and internal photographs of the building, diagrams, floor plans and topographical maps.

Research produced historical information from Southampton County School Board meeting minutes, dating back to 1935 and 1936, during which period the gymnasium was planned and built. (Prior to December of 1961, when Franklin became an independent city with its own school system, Franklin schools were a part of the Southampton County School System.)

Additional information was gotten from The Tidewater News archives. Several articles regarding the gymnasium appeared in newspapers in the years 1935 and 1936.

The Charles Street Gymnasium, originally known as the Franklin High School Gymnasium and Agricultural Building and, as previously stated, was constructed in 1935-1936. It is the last standing structure of the old Franklin High School complex, which included the old high school building, built in 1922, that faced Clay Street. The high school property extended from Clay Street back to Hill Street. Hill Street is now known as Charles Street.

The gymnasium and the athletic field was on property just behind the high school, west of Hill Street; the western end of Fourth Avenue was perpendicular to the gym. And, the school complex extended southward, crossing Third Avenue, and on to the property occupied by Franklin Elementary School, which faced West Second Avenue.

The gymnasium’s cost was $33,964.90, exclusive of equipment, 45 percent of which was an outright PWA grant (“Public Works Administration,” created by the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933). The remaining 55 percent was borrowed from the Literary Fund of Virginia.

On July 22 of this year, Elizabeth Lipford of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, in response to the application for historical designation, notified me that the gym application received preliminary approval.

“I am happy to report that our staff evaluation team believes that the Charles Street Gym is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places,” she stated. “The next step is for us to present it to the State Review Board at their September meeting. If they agree with our recommendation, you can proceed with preparing a nomination report.”

In the year 1967, following relocation of Franklin High School to its new facility on Crescent Drive, the former Franklin High School building was converted for use by Franklin Elementary School. The Franklin Elementary School building on Second Avenue, a beautiful structure built in 1908 — although certified as being still structurally sound — was abandoned. The building, by many people, was considered to be too antiquated for modern-day use. In 1977, the building was demolished.

In 1978, when the new Joseph P. King Jr. Middle School, extending from Second Avenue to Third Avenue was opened, the former high school building was closed for good. In 1988, the building — although certified as still structurally sound — was demolished and the property was sold to a private local developer who constructed condominiums on the site.

With support of the Franklin City School System, represented by Superintendent Dr. Willie Bell and the City Administration, historic designation and restoration of the Charles Street Gymnasium will not preclude current use of the building by the Franklin High School robotics and wrestling teams.

I am spearheading the project. Ron Ratcliffe, local photographer, took many pictures of the exterior and interior of the building. Elizabeth Burgess, Franklin High School Robotics director, is in strong support of the project. She assisted with some of the photography. And, she gave strong encouragement that we see this project through to its rightful conclusion.

Lynda Updike, president of the Southampton County Historical Society; John Quarstein, director of the USS Monitor Center & Foundation of the Mariner’s Museum and consultant to the Southampton County Historical Society; Historical Society member Bill Benton; and myself earlier this year, toured the gymnasium.

Following the tour, Quarstein spoke very favorably of the building, especially its architecture.

He said, “This structure is worthy of preserving.”

Updike recently commented on the project. She said, “I’m glad we are getting recognition for this beautiful old building. I love the architectural details on the front of the building — very unique.”

I say that we should retain this historical structure. It symbolizes a major part of Franklin’s history. If we can hold on to it, I believe, in a way, in my mind, we will be memorializing those historical and iconic structures that we have lost. And, we will be memorializing the hundreds of people, over many decades, that managed and/or used the gymnasium.