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Second Ward High School Gymnasium

1949

 The 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 neighborhood.[1]

Second Ward High School Tigers

Leaders of 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.[2]  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.[3] 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 request.[4]  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.[5]

African 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 High School.[6]  Advertisements for bids from contractors were issued in January 1948, and construction began the following May.[7] 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.[8]

Second Ward Tigers in action.

The architect of the Second Ward High School Gymnasium was A. G. Odell, Jr.[9]   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 Thomas Hanchett.[10]   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.[11] Odell set out to change that circumstance.

A. G. Odell, Jr.

Photograph from Charlotte 23 by Mary Snead Boger

Odell took 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.[12]   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.

Le Corbusier also called for a new vocabulary of building design. "We must start again from zero," he insisted.[13]   His new architecture became known as the International style. "A house is a machine for living in," said Corbusier.[14]   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," Hanchett explains.[15]  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.

A. G. 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."[16] 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. 

Second Ward Classroom

The Second Ward High School Gymnasium opened in January 1949.[17]  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.[18]  “When they closed it, it was like taking a meal off the table.  It hurt,” said another former student.[19] According to County Commissioner and State Senator Jim Richardson, “It was like losing part of yourself.”[20] 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

 



[1] 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.

 

[2] Education Minutes, 22 September, 1947.

 

[3] Education Minutes, 23 August, 1948.

 

[4] Education Minutes, 25 February, 1948.

 

[5] Education Minutes, 25 October, 1948.

 

[6]  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. 

 

[7] Education Minutes, 26 January, 24 May, 1948.

 

[8] Education Minutes, 23 February, 1948.

 

[9] 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.

 

[10] Hanchett, Thomas W., n.d. “Charlotte Architecture:  Design Through Time Part 2.” landmarkscommission.org/educationarchitecturept.2.

 

[11] Charlotte Observer, 22 April, 1988.

 

[12] Rybczynski, Witold, n.d. “The Architect Le Corbusier.” time.com/time/time100/artists/profile/lecorbusier.

 

[13] Quoted in Rybczynski.

 

[14] Quoted in Rybczynski.

 

[15] Hanchett

 

[16] Quoted in Rybczynski.

 

[17] Education Minutes, 14 January, 1949.

 

[18] Charlotte News, 9 December, 1976.

 

[19] Charlotte Observer, 30 August, 1983.

 

[20] Charlotte Observer, 2 September, 1994.