LOOKING BACK: Charles Street Gym

Published 11:00 am Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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Starting early on in the 1930s, Southampton County School officials were realizing, increasingly, the need for more broad-based school curricula for County students. Pursuant to this end, plans were evolving toward the establishment of curricula that would include not only academic education but also would offer more vocational-type training — especially agricultural and mechanical instruction. Commercial subjects, such as typewriting, shorthand, bookkeeping, etc., were being strongly emphasized. Physical education was being accepted, more and more, as an important part of the development of young people. 

Early in the year 1935, in pursuit of the aforementioned mission, a major building project was announced — the erection of a gymnasium, agricultural classroom, and machine shop building for Franklin High School. (At that time, the Town of Franklin was a part of Southampton County.) Construction of the building was started in the early part of 1935, occupying a commanding position at the head of Fourth Avenue — where it intersected with Hill Street (renamed Charles Street years ago) — adjacent to the rear of the preexisting Franklin High School property. The high school building, erected in 1922, faced Clay Street. 

The attractive brick and stone gym’s cost, exclusive of equipment, was $33,964.90. Forty-five percent of the cost was covered through a Public Works Administration grant, and the remaining fifty-five percent was borrowed from the Literary Fund of Virginia. 

The building, with a frontage of 83 feet, extended back 110 feet. The interior of the gymnasium (basketball court) — located at the front of the building complex — was constructed with maple flooring, ceramic tile walls, and an acoustical plaster ceiling. Bleachers provided accommodation for spectators. Locker rooms and showers for boys and girls were located just to the right and left of the main floor of the gymnasium.        

The rear part of the building complex, separated from the front section by a solid partition, was occupied by the agricultural department and workshop. An office was provided for the agricultural instructor. A central coal-fired heating system served the entire complex; electric fans blew heat through the various sections of the building.

Woodwork, ironwork, and sheet-metal work were taught, and elementary electricity and other craft instruction were other elective options. According to B.T. Watkins, the school principal, agricultural students could benefit from using the shop in that they would be allowed to build various items for personal farm use.            

The gymnasium complex is still standing and has been in use from 1936 until just a few years ago. When Franklin High School was relocated from Clay Street to Crescent Drive, in 1967, the gymnasium complex was retained and continued to be used as an alternate gym and for various other functions — such as weightlifting and wrestling. For an extended period of time, until recently, the gymnasium section of the building was used as the operations center for the Franklin High School Robotics Team. It is now vacant and not being used. The shop and agricultural classrooms sections of the building have been used for storage for many years.

On Dec. 18, 2019, the Virginia Department of Historical Resources issued a news release announcing that the Charles Street Gymnasium complex was approved for listing on the Virginia Department of Historical Resources Register. Approval was based largely on the building’s historical integrity, its classical revival architecture, and its importance as a major component of Franklin’s public education history. 

And, on Feb. 26, 2020, the Charles Street Gymnasium complex was approved for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

The building was used by multiple generations of Franklin-Southampton people who have very fond memories of their association and use of the building. Many people believe that, as a restored structure, it could and would fit in with present-day school operations. Although the building has been declared, for the most part, structurally sound, it does need considerable work to bring it up to usable standards. Of immediate concern is the need for flooring repair in the gym section and some roof repairs. Windows throughout the complex need stabilization and repair work.

A few years ago, Highground Services, Inc. conducted an engineering study of the facility and determined that although it was structurally sound, it needed considerable repair. 

More recently, Franklin City Public Schools commissioned Matthew G. Burton Architect LLC of Newport News, Virginia, to do a CONDITION ASSESSMENT STUDY of the property. Their detailed report, dated March 31, 2022, contained recommendations for repair and stabilization of the building — things that would be required to improve the building’s functionality and aesthetics. Repairs recommended in the report were prioritized into three primary categories: critical remedial, usability repair, and future work. 

The facility is owned and managed by the City of Franklin School System. It is currently unoccupied, but its future use is under consideration. 

According to Bob Holt, City of Franklin School Board Chairman, plans are underway to convert the J. P. King, Jr. Middle School property (next door to the Charles Street Gym) into a Franklin City Schools career technical center, which would offer instruction in the building trades, including plumbing, electricity, heating/air conditioning. “A restored and repurposed Charles Street Gym complex could be converted for use as an integral component of that undertaking; and the Franklin High School Robotics team could be returned to the building,” Holt said. 

Obviously, securing and allocating funds for the restoration of the building would be a major challenge.

CLYDE PARKER is a retired human resources manager for the former Franklin Equipment Co. and a member of the Southampton County Historical Society. His email address is magnolia101@charter.net.