Response Response

    N&O Article re Renavation of Old Garner Elementary School Building (8/19/98)

Home rooms

School days never end for
residents of the 45 apartments
in the old Garner Elementary

By G.D. GEARINO, Staff Writer

GARNER -- In the beginning, what
people wanted was simply to save the
old Garner Elementary School from
being razed. No one imagined that 10
years later Janice Stephenson would
be sleeping in her old classroom.
"The first night, I said, 'Am I here? Is this real?' But I slept like a little
baby," Stephenson says.
She spends every night there now. The school -- built when Warren
Harding was president and Old Glory was two stars short of its eventual
total -- is known these days as Olde School Commons. It's what is officially
called "affordable housing targeting the elderly," but Stephenson and dozens
of other people have a more common word for the building: home.
In her case, home is specifically her eighth-grade classroom -- second
floor, Room 210 (the building has also served as a high school). Some
interior walls have been added, naturally, so the 700-square-foot space
now has a definable bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and living area. There's
also a nice carpet that wouldn't have lasted a semester in the old days, new
appliances and lots of fresh paint. But there's no disguising that high
classroom ceiling.
The facility has 45 apartments, all of them one bedroom and all but three
leased. Rents are from $335 to $350, and for that price residents get to live
within walking distance of Garner's landmark restaurant, the Toot-N-Tell,
and have available for their use one of only two elevators in town. (The
other one's in Hartwell Plaza, an office building on U.S. 70.)
Ten years ago, little of this could have been imagined. The school was
decaying, and the Wake County Board of Education was considering
demolishing the structure and replacing it with a newer -- and, unavoidably,
soulless and history-less -- school building. Its argument for doing so,
naturally, was that it would cost too much to renovate the old school.
"We didn't know what [the school] would be in the future," says Garner
economic development director Rex Todd. "We just wanted it to have a
The fight to save the school -- an effort that Todd today refers to as a
series of "daily tactical maneuvers" -- was begun in 1988. Studies were
conducted. Engineers were consulted. Numbers were crunched. Other uses
were mulled. Arguments were met with counterarguments. Public sentiment
was stoked and, eventually, the school board agreed to build a new school
in another location. Creech Road Elementary opened in 1992.
In 1994, the town of Garner bought the old school property. The next
year, it was sold to a limited private partnership called Garner School
Apartments LLC, which truly is limited: The partners -- and there are only
two -- are Carolina Power & Light Co. and Regency Housing Group.
The $2.9 million renovation has resulted in a confusing patchwork of
ownership, leases and responsibilities. The partnership owns the old school
as well as the adjoining vocational building and cafeteria building. Those
three structures contain all the apartments for senior citizens, but the
complex is operated by another company, Interstate Property Management.
The town of Garner still owns the auditorium (which is attached to the old
school), the gymnasium (which isn't) and an auxiliary classroom building
(also unattached). The town operates the auditorium and gym as public
facilities, leases the auxiliary building back to Wake County Schools, and
leases the lobby in front of the auditorium -- which doubles as a small art
gallery -- from the private partners.
Got it?
If not, don't fret. The details are important only to administrators and
lawyers. To everyone else, Olde School Commons is a place where
yesterday's students are today's inhabitants.
Stephenson -- who was born in the Panther Creek community in
southern Wake County and has lived most of her life in Garner -- isn't the
only person with a connection to the school's past. Garner's director of
Parks & Recreation, Thomas Maynard, also attended class in the building.
Today, his department supervises the operation of the auditorium, gym and
ball fields.
"I think I went to the seventh grade in your place," he told Stephenson
one day recently. "I almost flunked. They put me in the accelerated class,
and everybody accelerated but me."
The ghosts of countless other students hover about the place. At some
spots, it easy to see how the school -- which was a high school until 1956
-- once looked: In the auditorium, for instance, the original wooden seats
are bolted to the original polished wood floor. The only clue that students
no longer are herded in for an inspirational browbeating by the principal are
the 135 plaques attached to the backs of the chairs "bought" by patrons,
who paid up to $500 to have their names put on them.
"These chairs had lots of bubblegum on them," Maynard says. Some of
it, he now acknowledges, was softened to an attachable state by his own
In other places, though, the changes have erased the past. What was
once the boy's first-floor restroom is now a meeting room, with an adjoining
kitchen. Upstairs, across from Stephenson's apartment, the old library is
now a small parlor shared by all the floor's residents. Next to the auditorium
lobby -- which, like the auditorium itself, can be rented for special
occasions -- there is a catering area, and the meals served from it doubtless
are better than those inflicted on the generations of students.
But such changes aren't to be lamented. They are what has saved the
building, which Todd notes is the largest historic structure in Garner. In
evolution there is survival.
For proof of that, you need not look further than the elevator, added
during the renovation. One recent day, Stephenson was showing off the
school to someone who remembered it from the old days. "She said, 'Do
y'all still use the stairs?' I said, 'No, we've got an elevator,' " Stephenson
"She said you'd have thought we were in New York."