Second Ward High
years of unprecedented prosperity immediately following World War Two
witnessed substantial improvements to the physical facilities of the
Charlotte Public Schools. Benefiting from voter approval of bonds
for school construction, the Board of School Commissioners moved
aggressively to meet the increased demand for classrooms engendered by the
post-war “baby boom.” Among its capital projects was the building of
a new gymnasium for Second Ward High School, a school exclusively for
African Americans that had opened in 1923 in the Brooklyn or Second Ward
|Second Ward High
Charlotte’s African American community consistently lobbied for better
schools for black children. On September 22, 1947, the Negro Parent
Teacher Association Council, headed by Mrs. Willie Mae Porter, appeared
before the School Board and expressed dissatisfaction with conditions at
Second Ward High School.
Kelly Alexander took a similar stance as spokesman for the Charlotte
Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
(N.A.A.C.P.) He told the Board on August 23, 1948, that it should
“correct any inequalities in facilities and educational opportunities”
provided for African American students.
Several months earlier, on February 25, 1948, the N.A.A.C.P. had asked
that summer school be made available to black children, as was already
being done for whites; and the Board of Education had consented to this
Finally, on October 25, 1948, W. H. Moreland, Frederick L. Wiley, and Earl
Colston of the Improvement Club for Negro Schools came to the Board and
offered to raise half of the money to build an athletic field at West
Charlotte High School.
Americans no doubt applauded the decision of the Board of Education on
October 27, 1947, to approve plans for the new gymnasium at Second Ward
Advertisements for bids from contractors were issued in January 1948, and
construction began the following May.
Blythe and Isenhour was the general contractor; A. Z. Price Co. oversaw
the heating and plumbing; and Hunter Electrical Co. was responsible for
the electrical components.
|Second Ward Tigers
architect of the Second Ward High School Gymnasium was A. G. Odell, Jr.
The flamboyant son of a Cabarrus County textile executive, Odell studied
architecture at Cornell University and came to Charlotte in 1939 to
establish a one-man office. By the time of his death in April 1988 Odell
oversaw the operations of one of the largest and most influential
architectural businesses in North Carolina. "In a society where class
connection still counted for much, young Odell had automatic entry to the
offices of the area's mill owners and businessmen," writes historian
When Odell arrived, Charlotte’s buildings were overwhelming conservative
and revivalist in appearance and had been so for decades. "Most
architecture in the area can best be described as pseudo-neoclassical,
with elements of design copied from buildings elsewhere that had already
incorporated copied elements of classic design," remembered M. H. Ward,
one of Odell’s early associates.
Odell set out to change that circumstance.
|A. G. Odell, Jr.
Photograph from Charlotte 23 by Mary Snead
his lead from the thinking of such revolutionary post-World War One
European architects as Le Corbusier. From about 1920 until shortly before
his death in 1965, Le Corbusier was an untiring proselytizer for what he
called the "Radiant City." To his way of thinking, urban designers should
break completely with the past. Le Corbusier had no sympathy or interest
in the preservation of existing buildings or neighborhoods. "Modern town
planning comes to birth with a new architecture," he proclaimed.
Le Corbusier envisioned people living in high rise apartments surrounded
by lustrous skyscrapers separated from one another by large expanses of
manicured open space and dramatic fountains. Urban cores should be
hygienic, antiseptic, and ordered -- not cluttered, begrimed, and
haphazard. The tradition of mixing functions in a single structure or
neighborhood was an anathema to Corbusier. The city of the future would be
divided into discreet sections devoted to specific purposes – working,
living, leisure – connected to one another by expressways.
Corbusier also called for a new vocabulary of building design. "We must
start again from zero," he insisted.
His new architecture became known as the International style. "A house is
a machine for living in," said Corbusier.
The fundamentals of the International style centered upon the
exploitation of new materials, especially reinforced concrete,
strengthened steel, and large expanses of glass, to create grace,
airiness, and to allow great amounts of sunlight to penetrate the interior
of structures. Some suggest that Corbusier wanted all buildings to look
like luxury liners. The proponents of the International style "maintained
that a well- designed building could be beautiful without the addition of
expensive trim that obscured its functional shapes and structure,"
Another center of International style philosophy was the Bauhaus in
Germany, where influential designers like Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies
van der Rohe held sway.
Odell, Jr. became Charlotte’s principal champion of the International
style and devoted his considerable talents and energies to reshaping the
local urban landscape. For good or ill, he largely succeeded. Odell
embraced the architecture of "tomorrow" and had nothing but disdain for
the revivalist buildings he observed on the streets of Charlotte.
Describing what he saw when he arrived in Charlotte, Odell declared:
"There was nothing here . . . that illustrated the honesty of stone as
stone, steel as steel, glass as glass. Everybody was still wallowing in
the Colonial heritage."
Not surprisingly, Odell’s Second Ward High School Gymnasium, one of his
first International style public buildings, exhibits none of the
traditional ornamentation of “yesterday” and expresses instead by its
unadorned geometric shape a veneration of modern technology.
Ward High School Gymnasium opened in January 1949.
Now part of the Metro School of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public School
System, it is the only surviving part of what was once the 14-acre Second
Ward High School Campus. Second Ward High School closed in 1969, and
the principal classroom building was demolished soon thereafter. “It
was a terrible thing to see them tear it down,” proclaimed Barbara
Simpson, a 1957 graduate.
“When they closed it, it was like taking a meal off the table. It
hurt,” said another former student.
According to County Commissioner and State Senator Jim Richardson, “It was
like losing part of yourself.”
The Second Ward High School Gymnasium has great meaning for the thousands
of African Americans who attended Second Ward. Entering the
gymnasium, one can almost hear the cheers of the countless crowds that
came there to support the Second Ward “Tigers.”
|Children watch the
demolition of Second Ward High School
Charlotte Observer, 8 July, 1985. For an enumeration of the
many construction contracts approved by the Charlotte Board of School
Commissioners, see Charlotte City Board of Education Records
1890-1960 UNCC Manuscript Collection 1, housed in Special
Collections, Atkins Library, University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Hereinafter cited as Education Minutes.
Education Minutes, 22 September, 1947.
Education Minutes, 23 August, 1948.
Education Minutes, 25 February, 1948.
Education Minutes, 25 October, 1948.
Education Minutes, 27 October, 1947. The approval was
contingent upon subsequent review and approval by Dr. Elmer Garinger,
Associate Superintendent, and Dr. N. L. Engelhardt, Engineering
Consultant for the Charlotte Public Schools.
Education Minutes, 26 January, 24 May, 1948.
Education Minutes, 23 February, 1948.
Mary Snead Boger, Charlotte 23 (Bassett, Va: Bassett Printing
Corporation, 1972), 226. Education Minutes, 7 October, 27
October, 1947; 26 January, 23 February, 25 February, 1948.
Hanchett, Thomas W., n.d. “Charlotte Architecture: Design Through
Time Part 2.” landmarkscommission.org/educationarchitecturept.2.
Charlotte Observer, 22 April, 1988.
Rybczynski, Witold, n.d. “The Architect Le Corbusier.” time.com/time/time100/artists/profile/lecorbusier.
Quoted in Rybczynski.
Quoted in Rybczynski.
Quoted in Rybczynski.
Education Minutes, 14 January, 1949.
Charlotte News, 9 December, 1976.
Charlotte Observer, 30 August, 1983.
Charlotte Observer, 2 September, 1994.