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Booker T. School transformation nearing beautiful end

After months of ripping out old plasterboard, sagging floors and rotting window casings at the former Booker T. Washington School on East Main Street, Town Operations Manager Craig Ford says he is starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“The biggest problem with the building is that it was used for years and years as a maintenance depot for the Washington County School System,” Ford said.
“It was built in 1940 and there hadn’t been a lot done to improve the building since then. It had leaks everywhere, a roofline that ended where the brick began and missing guttering. There was lots of water damage – rot at every window.”
Ford walked through the building, pointing out the before and afters that have occurred since the Town of Jonesborough purchased the building and began restoration efforts.
Plans are on track, he said, to open the facility as the McKinney Center for the Arts this summer – a place where performances, art classes and more can take place.
It has taken a long time to get to this point, Ford said, and the path has been anything but smooth.
“The floor joists were rotted out in one room and there wasn’t enough space underneath to repair it from below,” Ford said. “So, we just ripped the floor and joists out from above and fixed it that way.
“Looking at the building now it is hard to see all the intricate work it took to get to this point.”
At every turn, new drywall is being finished, fresh coats of paint shine and LED lighting makes the building glow. Inmates from the Carter County Work Camp are in every nook and cranny, finishing drywall, running conduit and installing storm windows.
The first step when renovation began was to put a new roof on the building. After that, the huge multi-paned windows became a priority.
“I don’t know how many people told me that we ought to just yank those windows and do away with them, but I just couldn’t do that,” Ford said.
Painstakingly, windows were pulled from some parts of the building and moved to other spots. Hundreds of panes of glass were replaced and then, to ensure the energy efficiency, custom storm windows were mounted on the inside of the window casings.
But the real “nightmare,” Ford said, was the old gymnasium which is being given new life as a 300-person occupancy auditorium.
“When this building was built, they had outdoor toilet facilities,” Ford explained. “At some point in time they added a restroom on both sides of the stage by cutting a rectangle out of the floor. Walls were held in place by 2x4s and were essentially hanging in mid-air. Those walls were supposed to be supporting the roof.”
There were other major support issues which were solved by installing cedar beams and building a header, all put in place with the help of jacks.
The ceiling in the auditorium, now with an open-beam design, was in really bad shape, Ford said.
“We took about 100 pounds of raccoon crap out from overhead,” he said. “It was a real mess.”
All new wiring has been installed and the building is “loaded with receptacles and conduit” Ford said. “I try to look at things 10-15 years down the road, not just tomorrow.”
Ingenuity and flexibility have played large roles in the renovation, Ford noted.
“We added some closet storage space where the plans didn’t call for any,” he said. “As a result, we are going to be able to take the original flooring from those closet floors, which won’t be seen, and use it to repair the auditorium floor.”
Finally, Ford said, you can see the future in this building.
A new small catering kitchen will be installed soon as well as a waiting area for parents who come to pick up their children from classes there.
Decorative street lights are in place as are three-phase and single-phase underground transformers, allowing for the conversion from overhead to underground wiring.
While all of the work being done is for the future, Ford said, sometimes thinking about the building’s past dredges up some painful thoughts.
“You know, it just steps you back to a different time,” he said. “Sometimes when I get to thinking about how different things were back then I get angry.”
It’s hard to imagine, Ford explained, that back n the 1940’s when the structure was built, racial segregation was the standard. The school, built for black students, was a long way from what it should have been, Ford said.
“I looked at this building during demo work and I couldn’t believe how substandard the construction was. There wasn’t one ounce of insulation. They had a coal-fired furnace, but you could feel the wind whipping through the windows. It had to be cold during the winter,” Ford said. “And I thought to myself, if this had been a school for the white kids, would it have been built like this?”
“It’s just sad to think about that. All of our blood and hearts are the same. God loves us all. I just don’t understand that mentality.”
Now, however, the old school will have new life and will be safe and warm for all those students who come there, he said.
“It’s been a long tedious process,” Ford said. “But I’m really proud to be a part of this project.”