In an era of sprawling one-floor school campuses, the former Franklinton High School stands out in the center of this tiny downtown. The three-story brick building towers over Main Street, its name chiseled in stone above the doors that have welcomed generations of Franklin County kids.
The last group of high schoolers moved out to a bigger campus in 2011, having long outgrown the 88-year-old building. But unlike many of its 1920s-vintage counterparts around the Triangle, Franklinton won’t face the wrecking ball or a future outside education. Many residents in this town of 1,700 people are graduates, and they want their kids to learn in the same classrooms.
“There’s a lot of community pride in this facility,” said Tommy Piper, Franklin County’s assistant superintendent for auxiliary services and a 1974 Franklinton grad.
So next fall, the campus will start a new life as Franklinton Middle School, helping ease overcrowding at Cedar Creek Middle in Youngsville. A few parents have expressed “apprehension” about going to such an old facility, Piper said, but a $3.3 million renovation will give students all the benefits of new construction. Crews replaced windows, walls and doors, added an elevator and expanded the cafeteria kitchen.
“When you walk into the room, it’s going to look like a new classroom,” Piper said.
The 320 Franklinton Middle students next year will also have a few amenities their peers don’t have. Instead of a cafeteria with a stage, the historic school has a large auditorium with balcony seating. The students will experiment in large science labs left behind by the high schoolers, and they can use a greenhouse and home economics classroom if there’s enough interest.
“There’s a lot of opportunity here, program-wise,” Piper said.
But like any historic building, the school still has quirks. The library spans two floors, the science classes are in a separate building, and students will get bused to the gymnasium a block away. A few outbuildings from the old high school – a ninth-grade center, a shop classroom and an old Main Street bank converted for classes – won’t get much use, at least until the school grows.
Keeping the old school will save the Franklin County school district millions. Piper figures it would cost $15 million to $16 million to construct a middle school on a new site.
That’s an argument for historic schools that Preservation North Carolina has touted for years.
“These buildings are extremely well-built; they’re made of very fine materials,” said the group’s president, J. Myrick Howard. “When the tests are done, they’re more energy-efficient than the one-story sprawling buildings built to replace them. The school boards now realize that economically, it makes a ton of sense.”
Howard said school boards around the Triangle have been more willing in recent years to save buildings from the 1920s and ’30s. In Raleigh, Wake County schools have made extensive renovations in the past decade to Washington, Underwood and Olds elementary schools. Southeast Raleigh’s Thompson School, built in 1923 and closed in 1971 during integration, will hold the Wake Young Men’s Leadership Academy in future years.
The battle to save old schools was harder in years past, Howard said. The state had strict guidelines for classroom size and encouraged single-story buildings, prompting many districts to favor new construction. Johnston County replaced 15 schools, turning a few into municipal offices or senior apartments and razing the others.
In recent decades, Franklin County has torn down several of the more modest Rosenwald schools, built in the 1920s to serve black students. That leaves Franklinton as the only school in the county that predates the 1950s.
“This was built so much better” than the others, Piper said. He expects it to survive another 88 years or more.
“There’s not a brick missing,” he pointed out.