In the early 20th century, segregated schools created a huge disparity in the facilities and resources available to Black students, particularly in the South. Julius Rosenwald, then president of Sears Roebuck, partnered with Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute to address the issue, and invested in a philanthropic effort to construct over 5,000 schools through a combination of grants and community fundraising. The Rosenwald Schools elevated the educational experience for countless students and their families, and thrived until school desegregation in the 1950s when the facilities were no longer needed for their original purpose.

Most Rosenwald schools were clad in wood, and therefore many deteriorated when they were no longer in active use. The buildings that remain are endangered, but treasured, pieces of history. One such example, the old Billingsville School, remains in the Grier Heights community, just outside of Uptown Charlotte. The school was built in 1927, and endured because the community raised the money for a masonry exterior through neighborhood fish fries to ensure it would last for generations.

Building on History

Today, the building is known as the Grier Heights Community Center, owned by Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools and operated by Crossroads Corporation for Affordable Housing and Community Development, Inc. Crossroads currently uses the building for community programs such as a reduced-cost medical clinic, adult education, and after school care. The Center is part of a multibuilding campus which includes a community park with athletic fields and a new elementary school. Although it has continued to serve its community well for nearly a hundred years, the building needed some design interventions to make the most of the existing space.

The opportunity to make some strategic changes to the facility came from a powerful community ally: the Charlotte Hornets Foundation. The NBA basketball team is central to the city’s identity and deeply committed to community investment, and reached out to the community center to offer to fund a project. LS3P team members, who got to know the Hornets staff while working on a Spectrum Center project, were eager to join the cause.

Carving Out Space

The community center, first and foremost, needed more flex space to support a variety of programs. The original 4,600 SF building has wood trusses, generous 12’ ceilings, and a hipped roof; a 1949 addition, more utilitarian in materials and function, created 1,000 SF of restrooms. In 2014, the original structure was renovated, and the use was changed from educational to business occupancy – greatly reducing the square footage required for restrooms by code. That freed-up space became a much-needed quiet room off of the main program area, which will serve as a room for individual and group learning, counseling area, or meeting space as needed. A new ramp over the existing stairwell makes the building accessible for the entire community, and better integrates the building with the parking lot and park. The finishes in the quiet room reflect the quality and character of the historic existing building, while renovations to the lower-level “flex” space are more utilitarian to accommodate high-volume activities.

Rallying a Team

As in every interesting project, the renovation presented a key challenge or two that led to fantastic opportunities. The project budget was $100,000, but the work required to reconfigure the restrooms, fit out new spaces, and construct the ramp for accessibility was estimated at $350,000. Undaunted, the team began to reach out to design partners with similar values to find solutions to bridge the funding gap. LS3P proudly supports the 1+ initiative to donate 1% of staff hours to pro bono work, and was able to offer a combination of reduced fees and donated time to the project. LS3P was put in touch with Lowes Home Improvement through the existing relationship Lowes has with the Charlotte Hornets Foundation; Lowes donated materials and connected the team with DPR, a contractor whose project managers all commit to donating a percentage of their time to pro bono services each year. DPR donated considerable time, and was instrumental in securing donations of labor and materials from industry colleagues. DPR also worked with flooring vendors to find overstock materials at greatly reduced cost. These efforts all led to much nicer materials than the budget would have originally supported. Consultants across the architecture and engineering team, including JDH Structural and Jordan & Skala Engineers, all rallied around the cause with enthusiasm and reduced fees, making it possible to bring this project to fruition for the community through teamwork.

Navigating the Process

Delivering the project in a tight timeframe required intensive design sessions with the entire A/E team, which took place primarily on Zoom and in less than three weeks. Construction took place between late August and early November, with the community center remaining open and operational throughout the process, and a ribbon cutting is currently scheduled for November 18th.

The review process with Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools ended with a design that meets today’s needs of the community center while making the building accessible and code-compliant to accommodate evolving future needs. The success of the project is rooted in shared values; from Grier Community Center to the Charlotte Hornets Foundation to the A/E team and vendors, every person on the team was committed from the beginning to serving the community. Everyone brought something different and valued to the table, and every participant was instrumental in achieving project success.

About Dan

Senior Associate Daniel Sykes brings over 15 years of experience in designs for diverse healthcare, education, commercial, and aviation projects. Daniel enjoys working at all scales from small renovations to large-scale international construction, and he specializes in project leadership, technical documentation and construction administration for complex projects. He is highly skilled at all project phases from conceptual design through project delivery.

Daniel’s recent projects include designs for Charlotte’s Spectrum Center Arena (fan shop, box office, and restaurant), Liberty Southpark & Seafields at Kiawah Island (both LS3P assisted living). Notable projects completed with a previous firm include designs for the Hamad International Airport in Qatar, the Zurich NYC Headquarters at 4 World Trade Center, and the Wexner Medical Center at The Ohio State University.