Over the past two weeks, tenants have slowly moved into the residential portion of the renovated Whitted School, a facility originally built in the early 1920s to serve African-American families during a period when Durham’s schools were racially segregated.
The Veranda at Whitted School, the name of the residential part of the project, will contain 79 affordable apartments for senior citizens when all is said and done.
In August, the facility will also become home to eight preschool classrooms serving a total of 144 children.
About 32 apartments in the first phase of The Veranda at Whitted School have been leased, and some lessees such has Barbara Whitfield-Garrett, have already taken up residence.
More tenants will begin to move into the second phase of the senior housing located in the historic building in coming weeks.
There will be 47 units in the historic portion of the project.
“We have more demand than product,” said Carl Webb, a co-developer on the project through his firm FortyAM.
For Whitfield-Garrett, the return of Whitted School is a type of homecoming. She grew up in the Southside Community where Whitted School is located and she attended junior high school in the building in the late 1960s.
Whitfield-Garrett said her mother, born in 1915, also attended school in the building, which was named Hillside and served as the city’s black high school until outgrowing its space in the 1940s.
At one time, the building housed the only high school for African-Americans in Durham.
“I love it here,” Whitfield-Garrett said. “This is beautiful. I go into my apartment and I’ve got peace. God brought me here.”
Whitfield-Garrett, who lives on a fixed income, said her rent is only $94 a month, which she said is affordable even for someone living on a fixed income of $800 a month.
On a tour of the project last week, Daryl Jones, a senior vice president for Atlanta-based Integral, the private partner in the $22 million private-public partnership that includes Durham County, Durham Public Schools and the City of Durham, showed off one of the vacant apartments in the new building.
“This is something that had been a real problem,” said Jones, referring to Whitted School, which had badly deteriorated while sitting vacant for more than a decade. “Now, it’s been turned into a real community asset.”
The roomy apartment contained modern appliances, washer and dryer connections and a bathroom equipped with shower seat and other amenities for seniors who might need them due to a disability.
Tenants at The Veranda at Whitted School will have use of the old school auditorium that has been refurbished to its original state.
Jones said the auditorium was in pretty bad shape — the ceiling had collapsed — when construction started. But the auditorium has been transformed into a gathering place for seniors.
The wooden floors of the stage have been replaced with wood taken from the bleachers of the old gymnasium
Jones said the old auditorium, now outfitted with a kitchen, can be used for tenant dinners, parties and similar activities.
Children from the preschool will be able to use it to put on plays or programs to entertain the seniors — or have the seniors entertain them.
While the auditorium is intended for use by seniors and preschoolers, the gymnasium, with its original hardwood floors and brick, will likely be rented for basketball games or social gatherings such as weddings or family reunions.
Jones said the Durham Public Schools, which will operate the preschool, will decide how that space is used.
Throughout the renovation project, senior citizens will enjoy such amenities as a health and fitness room outfitted with the latest gym equipment, sitting areas and a computer room.
“We have the level of amenities you’ll find in apartments in downtown Durham in a historic building that once served blacks in Durham,” Webb said.
He noted that well-known African-Americans such as former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and local officials such as Cora Cole-McFadden and Minnie Forte-Brown all attended school in the building.
“Everyone in Durham had some kind of relationship with this building,” Webb said.
Whitted school has been billed as an intergenerational project that will bring seniors and young children together in an environment where they can learn from each other.
Jones pointed out several large planters he envisions will be a focal point of such learning experiences.
“It’ll allow the seniors to do projects together,” Jones said. “They can teach the kids that food actually comes from the ground and not the grocery store.”
The Durham Public Schools is currently in the process of hiring a director and staff for the preschool, which is scheduled to open in August.
Durham County has pledged $1.5 million each year to pay to operate the preschool.
About Whitted School
The Whitted School building opened in 1922 to house the upper grades of Durham's public school for black students. Next to Hillside Park, the school was named Hillside and served as the city's black high school until outgrowing its space in the 1940s.
In 1949, Hillside swapped buildings with the newer, larger James. A. Whitted Elementary School on Concord Street, but each school kept its own name. Whitted later became a junior high, and remained in use as a school until the late 1970s.
Nonprofits leased space there for a number of years, but the old school has been vacant for at least eight years, and fallen into considerable disrepair. In 2012, the county solicited developers’ proposals for renovating the building and favored Integral Development of Atlanta over the Durham company Traditional Neighborhood Development.