Jefferson School City Center

Charlottesville, VA

In matters of race, reconciliation, and community, how can design make a difference?

As Charlottesville’s only African American school between 1865 and 1951, Jefferson School is recognized nationally as an historic landmark. The Jefferson School story is emblematic of the complex post-Civil War history of black education, and the difficult path to integration in Charlottesville and the nation at large.

Jefferson School began 1865 as a Freedmen’s Bureau school, and was replaced in 1894 by a two-story, eight-classroom structure on the present site. The current incarnation of the building was constructed in 1926 and expanded four times, its long footprint reading as a timeline of architectural approaches to the design of public education facilities.

Jefferson School served as the flagship school for integration in the wake of both the Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling and the ensuing Massive Resistance laws enacted by the Commonwealth of Virginia. When, in 1958, some current and former students requested transfers to white schools, the state opted to close those white schools rather than accept Negro students. The decision made Charlottesville the first jurisdiction in the nation to shut down public education in opposition to integration. The 1965-1966 school year saw Jefferson School reopen to house all of Charlottesville’s junior high school students — both black and white — for the first time.

The turbulent story of the years from 1954 to 1966 is reflected in Jefferson School as it stands today. The school is a testament to the resilience of the African-American community, its desire for equal educational facilities, and its commitment to providing children with opportunities.

In 2002, Jefferson School alumni, Starr Hill neighborhood residents, and volunteers from the business, government and non-profit sectors formed a partnership to oversee the renovation and restoration of this historic site. BDA joined the collaboration to help bring a landmark back to life. Our involvement included design and oversight of the complex restoration, as well as the planning of spaces for new partners who would occupy the restored structure.

Jefferson School — now renamed Jefferson School City Center — opened in January 2013, with nine resident partners whose linked intergenerational and interdisciplinary programs represent a new model for a community center in the 21st century. In addition, new public park was created and dedicated on the the site of the former Jefferson Primary Graded School, to the east of the present structure.

The project is the recipient of of numerous awards lauding the community-based nature of the endeavor and the care with with which the preservation program was executed. With a permanent interactive exhibition showcasing African-American contributions to Charlottesville and the surrounding Albemarle County, the City Center is a significant cultural and educational hub in the community.

This lively collaboration between architects, alumni, the building committee, local non-profit tenants, city agencies, historic tax credit reviewers, and a capable contractor gave Charlottesville a project that goes beyond the simple restoration of bricks and mortar. The colorful cafe, sunlit hallways full of activity, and lively recreation center are all indicative of the project’s success. The renewed vibrancy of the building makes it difficult to recall the neglected spaces, the peeling paint, and the walls of crumbling mortar. Life and energy have been restored to the building.

Aerial views of the school and the surrounding Vinegar Hill neighborhood in 1960 (before demolition) and 1965 (after demolition). Vinegar Hill was largely destroyed in the mid-1960’s as a part of Charlottesville’s “urban renewal” campaign. What was a key area of commerce for the African-American population of Charlottesville became a victim of attempts to avoid integration. Its destruction had a profound effect on the identity and health of both the neighborhood and the school.

The building now accommodates a wide array of spaces and building tenants: a museum for the African American Heritage Center, child care classrooms for the YMCA, state-of-the-art culinary arts teaching kitchens for Piedmont Virginia Community College, athletic and community rooms for the City’s Parks and Recreation division, and tutoring facilities for Literacy Volunteers of America. Modern needs for these programs are all incorporated while maintaining the significant historic fabric and features of the building.

The former parking lot (which was the original schoolyard) is now a neighborhood park and playground.

The historic auditorium, the heart of the oldest part of the school, was renovated to serve as a flexible community space and is outfitted with state-of-the-art technology.

The hallway leading into the auditorium now has glass doors to contain sound while preserving the long view down the character-defining corridor.

Carver Recreation Center’s gymnasium was renovated to bring more daylight into the space, and to improve the artificial lighting.

Project Type: Commercial

Client: Jefferson School Community Partners