Opinion: Norfolk School Board should preserve Maury High

Robert Wojtowicz is chair of the Architectural Review Board for the city of Norfolk and a professor of art history at Old Dominion University.

As chair of the city of Norfolk’s Architectural Review Board, as a faculty member in architectural history at Old Dominion University, and as a concerned citizen, I fully support the renovation of Maury High School. Demolishing this notable structure would be an irretrievable loss for a city that has repeatedly undervalued its history, as well as the role architecture can play in establishing a community’s pride of place and in confronting and healing the ghosts of its past.

Maury High School, the city’s first to be purpose-built, was at the time of its construction in 1909-1911 a state-of-the-art facility, setting a standard of excellence for all that followed. A 1980s renovation brought the building up to late-20th century educational standards. A second major, cost-effective renovation could infuse the building with much-needed 21st century amenities, including wireless technology.

The preservation of Maury High School should be pursued for two major reasons.

Architecture: Maury High School is one of the finest examples of Beaux-Arts classicism in southeastern Virginia. Its elegant columns are fashioned after those supporting the portico of the ancient Tower of the Winds in Athens; as such, they symbolize the classical roots of secondary education. The quality of its brickwork and terra-cotta ornamentation cannot be replicated using modern materials. Moreover, Neff and Thompson, the firm responsible for its design, was one of the most prolific and highly regarded in Virginia. In fact, Clarence A. Neff Sr., one of the firm’s principals, served as the first president of the Virginia chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Segregation: Maury High School is inexorably intertwined with the tragic history of school segregation in Norfolk and the commonwealth of Virginia. Its predecessor was located in a former private academy in the city’s transitioning Brambleton ward. Ghent was chosen as the site for a replacement building due to its emergence as the preferred address for the city’s prosperous white community. That the new building was named for Confederate Commodore Matthew Fontaine Maury further served to reinforce the idea of white hegemony in a racially divided city.

Fast forward nearly 50 years, and the court-ordered desegregation of the city’s schools, which followed their wholesale closure under “massive resistance,” once again found Maury High School at the epicenter. A widely circulated photograph of Louis Cousins — the only black student then permitted to matriculate — sitting isolated from his white peers in the school’s auditorium, serves as a stark reminder of the indignities suffered by him and other civil rights pioneers. To lose the setting in which Cousins fought to complete his diploma would be an affront to his memory.

As an example of an educational building that has been lovingly renovated while boldly examining its troubled past, one need look no further than Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, the site of an even more famous desegregation battle. Central High School continues to function as an active and academically ranked high school, even as its status as an historic site is imparted to the general public in partnership with the National Park Service.

I urge the Norfolk School Board to give serious consideration to the renovation of this important architectural, historical and cultural landmark.

Robert Wojtowicz is chair of the Architectural Review Board for the city of Norfolk and a professor of art history at Old Dominion University.

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