Discover the Massie Heritage Center in Savannah Georgia - The Massie Heritage Center is a symbol of Savannah’s early commitment to public education. Stay & Play in GA!
Massie Heritage Center, a building of dignity, and simplicity, occupies a corner of Calhoun Square.
The square was laid out in 1851 following the original concepts used for the plan of Savannah by General James Edward Oglethorpe in 1733. The scale of the neighborhood is residential, with the exception of the massive Wesley Monumental Methodist Church at the west side of the square.
All buildings fronting the square have been rated as historic structures, and in this milieu the architectural scale of the school building becomes extremely important. The structure is an effective "closer" or "definer" of the outdoor space of the square. The building is, in fact, three separate two-story structures; and the imparted feeling is, therefore, a very comfortable, compatible residential scale quality.
The middle structure was the first element erected. It has basic plan dimensions of 45 feet by 70 feet deep on the lot and was built in 1855-1856 from plans by architect John S. Norris, designer of many important local buildings. The exterior statement of Massie School is simple and direct. The middle structure meets the ground very positively, having a strong plinth course of sandstone from the ground to the first floor level.
The walls are built of Savannah Georgia gray brick, a popular basic masonry material of the period, and finished in stucco with deeply incised scoring at fairly large spacing to impart the feeling of massive stonework.
The front elevation is modeled to produce four equally spaced pilasters connected above the second story windows by low round arches; and this assemblage is finally surmounted by the gable end of the roof, states as a classical pediment having a scored stucco frieze.
A belfry framed in heavy timbers is centrally located on the right side of the roof. The main entrance is a pair of large-scale wood doors, and the windows on either side are six over six rectangular double-hung wood. The windows on the second floor are similar, but have a gently curving head shape, following the curve of the modeled wall into which they are set. The original louvered wood window shutters are gone.
The main entry doors lead into a small foyer, flanked on either side by stairwells with gently curving stairs giving access to the second floor. The rails, spindles, and newel posts are mahogany. Doors from the stairways also lead into a large assembly room (same width as the building) on each floor, with the lower room having a pair of interesting fluted cast-iron columns about five feet apart and centrally located in the space. The meeting point of the plaster walls and ceiling is strongly defined by a raked plaster cornice.
Plan configuration has been modified only slightly, this modification occurring at the rear of the central building on both floors where two original very small classrooms existed. The walls separating these rooms from the assembly rooms were moved northward to allow another window in each small classroom. Later, these windows were converted to doors, providing additional exits to the yards. A lower classroom has a pair of fluted cast-iron columns matching those of the lower assembly room.
There is a small basement below the front portion of the ground floor, containing some components of an original furnace and ducted heating system. The wings or annexes are smaller than the original building; but the modeling of the principal facades is identical, and the window arrangements and sizes are the same. These annexes do not have entrances from the street, but have access from the interior of the central original building by outdoor passageway connectors.
The three joined buildings are in excellent condition structurally, showing no movement in the exterior masonry walls and no significant cracking. The floor framing of heavy pine timbers and the roof structure, pine trusses, are also in excellent shape. The exterior stucco has lost the strong articulation of the original scoring, probably due to surface erosion and subsequent coats of paint. The original color of the building was a soft beige.
Brick masonry walls enclose the "suitable yard rooms" and separate the girls' area from the boys'. Parts of the original brick walkways remain. Massie Heritage Center is Greek Revival architecture at its simplest and best, entirely appropriate for the introduction of the public school system into the State of Georgia.
The Massie Heritage Center Historic Timeline of Events
1841 - Peter Massie, a Scotsman who had lived in Savannah Georgia before moving to Glynn County, Georgia, dies and leaves $5,000.00 to the city of Savannah "for the education of poor children."
1852 - Savannah's mayor and two aldermen constitute the Massie Poor School Committee.
1855- Wisely invested for several years, the Massie School Fund has grown to $14,008.25.
Chatham County Commissioners Anthony Porter, John Stoddard, and Solomon Cohen request and receive $9,000.00 to build the Massie School House. Work begins in December, with John S. Norris (designer of the Custom House and the Green-Meldrim House) as architect and builder, on a classic Greek Revival structure that will become the Massie School.
1856- An October 8 opening is postponed until October 15 because the arrival of desks is delayed. School opens with 150 students in six classrooms. Enrollment grows to 240 by the end of the first school year. Of the 240 students, forty-two pay tuition amounting to $1200.00, an average of $28.57 per student, although payment varied depending on ability to pay.
1864- During the Union occupation of Savannah Georgia, Massie School House is used as a Union Hospital.
1865- At the direction of the Federal Army, Massie School is designated as a public school for African- American children. * View the original document concerning this period. The Chatham County Public School System is chartered as the first public school system in Georgia. The "Massie Common School House" marks ten years of operation as a public school
1872- The western building is added next to the original 1856 John Norris structure in a compatible style.
1886- The eastern building is added on the other side of the original 1856 John Norris structure in a compatible style.
1974- The Massie School is closed as a regular inner-city school after nearly 120 years of operation.
1975- The Massie School history and building are researched by Saxon Pope Bargeron, a Massie School principal, Savannah-Chatham County school superintendent, and Board of Education president.
1977 - The Massie Heritage Interpretation Center is placed on the National Register for Historic Places.
School Life at Massie
School days, like all days, have changed; yet the problems remain the same and the best clues toward solutions of contemporary concerns are often built on past experiences. In the Massie Common School House there seems to be an ever-lingering spirit that sets the mood for proper teaching and learning.
Each school day was opened and closed with roll call, the reading of the Scriptures and the Lord’s Prayer.
Teachers used “moral suasion” to control their unruly pupils. Obedience to God, parent, and teacher was the foundation rock of learning. Contrary to current belief, corporal punishment in the early years at Massie was rare. The paddling was administered by the principal in the afternoon but only after all teachers and pupils had left the building.
Through 1890, following the British custom of designating the graduating class as the first form, the highest grade at Massie was the first grade. In the grammar school, the six-year-olds were in the seventh or eighth grade at Massie depending upon the number of grades in the school. In 1890, the seventh grade at Massie (six-year-olds) contained 71 children for one teacher, and the average enrollment per teacher in the nineteenth century was always well above 50.
Primary classes were taught to read by the “word method.” By the close of the school year, the pupils were expected to read with fluency then lessons contained in the First Reader.
Drills of repetition, memorization, and spelling bees were important teaching methods. While parsing and diagramming were essential, composition was not neglected even in the primary grades. Much stress was placed on mental arithmetic. In penmanship, teachers “set copy” for the pupils to imitate.
Textbooks were used for many years, handed down from the older children in a family. It was considered a foolish waste of money for a school to change textbooks frequently.