Phillis Wheatley School is located in Faubourg Tremé.

phillis wheatley school

Model of Phillis Wheatley School, 1954, via HNOC

Phillis Wheatley School

Photo of an architectural model of Phillis Wheatley School, designed by Charles Colbert, in 1954. Colbert’s widespread praise for the school’s mid-century modern design. While the school was relatively undamaged by Hurricane Katrina, it was demolished on June 17, 2011. The school district rebuilt Wheatley, and the new facility opened in 2014.

The school is located at 2300 Dumaine Street, in Faubourg Tremé. Its namesake was an enslaved woman who published a book of poetry in 1773.  When Wheatley opened in 1954, it was a segregated, colored-only school.

Colbert’s design

In a July 4, 2009 Times-Picayune article, Lolis Eric Elie, then one of the paper’s regular columnists, described the constraints the school placed on Colbert. The biggest issue was size. The land set aside for the school was less than twenty percent the size recommended for a school of 800 students. Colbert designed a multi-story facility to fit in the small space. His cantilevered steel truss design featured classrooms raised above an open, ground-floor space. The raised building offered a play area underneath. So, since there was no space for a separate recess/playground, students used this covered area.

No bathrooms

While Colbert’s design drew praise from architects, educators found numerous issues. Bilateral lighting appealed to designers. Teachers worked in classrooms with large windows. The glare from those windows obscured chalk boards.

Bathrooms presented another serious flaw in Colbert’s design. There were no bathrooms in the raised classroom building. Both students and faculty had to go downstairs to a separate building to use the lavatories. This goes hand-in-hand with the overall property constraints. To fit in the space, Colbert built a multi-story facility. The district provided no money for proper plumbing in the raised section.

Preservation as institutional racism

After Hurricane Katrina, preservationists opposed the school’s demolition. They argued that the mid-century modern design justified keeping the building. The problem here is when white preservationists don’t factor in the practical aspects. To re-purpose the 1954 building meant finding land to build a new school for 800 African-American students. Even now, ten years after the building’s demolition, its loss is mourned, without a mention of providing important educational services in the Tremé

NOTE: While the full version of most of blog posts are for patrons only, this one is open. That’s because a discussion about Wheatley started on Twitter. Thanks to NOLA History Guy patrons for understanding! 

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