Monday, June 11th, 2012...9:38 am
Old School gets new life as apartments, community service center
Several retired teachers stood in the former Russell School chatting away, fondly remembering the days when they molded the minds of students who traveled the hallways there.
They talked about the love that began in the surrounding community and penetrated the building’s walls to warm parents, teachers and administrators.
Or was the reverse true?
Could that love have started inside the school and traveled with the children to their homes and families?
“This was a very loving school,” said Ruth McDowell, who taught general music at Russell for 20 years, beginning in 1964. “I see students now who come up and tell me how much they enjoyed being at Russell and how much of a family we were. We were really special.”
A lot of people in Lexington agreed, fighting until the end to keep Russell open. They lost and the school closed in 2003.
Then the community pleaded to save and repurpose the building and its name, which is rich in black history. They won. The Urban League and the Community Action Council bought the building from Fayette County Public Schools for $350,000 in 2005 and now Russell School is the home of the Russell School Community Services Center and the Russell School Apartments. Both are a collaboration of the Community Action and the Urban League of Lexington-Fayette County.
“What drove us mostly was the cry from the community,” said P.G. Peeples, Urban League president and CEO. “They said, ‘Save our building.’ They fought to keep it open, failed at that and then said don’t let our building go away.”
A testimony of the community’s affection for Russell, Peeples said, was that after the building closed and sat vacant for several years, it was never vandalized. “There was graffiti on one wall,” he said, “but nothing else. Absolutely nothing.”
Donna Fisch, who was librarian at Russell for 25 years, said she always felt safe at the school because of the community.
“They recognized our cars, no matter where we parked in the area,” Fisch said. “Our cars were never touched.”
Similarly fond memories — and a large dose of curiosity — propelled the educators to return to Russell last week as some of the first people to see how the school has been transformed into 27 apartments for seniors and a state-of-the-art child-care center.
At 10 a.m. Monday, Russell School will formally reopen with a ceremony, and then, throughout the day, the public is invited to tour the building and see the renovations that have filled the hallways with love once again.
The Community Action part of the $6.7 million project, which has Head Start and Early Head Start classrooms and space to provide social services in the community, was completed last summer. The Head Start program started in August.
But the other half of the project, featuring 27 new one-bedroom apartments where a gym, cafeteria and classrooms once were, wasn’t completed until May 15.
The former teachers graded the project an A.
“It is transformed,” said Juanita Lewis Thomas, a fifth-grade teacher at Russell for 24 years. “I had some personal questions about it, but when we toured last week, it was like Alice had come to Wonderland.”
“I’m a gardener, so I especially enjoy the landscaping and the outside of the building with the new windows,” said Barbara J. Russo, who taught fourth and fifth grades, as well as special education and Title I there for 19 years. “It does so much for the entire neighborhood.”
Russell was the first black school in Lexington, serving at various times as a high, junior high and elementary school. The current building opened in 1954.
The Russell Apartments are reserved for qualified residents who are 62 and older. Although the rent is $591 a month, applicants receive discounts from Housing and Urban Development for their age, income and monthly out-of-pocket costs such as prescriptions and medical expenses.
Property manager Tina Coots said the application can take up to an hour to complete. Then verification must be received before the application is sent off for approval. Some of the pre-approved applicants may be able to move in later this week, she said.
With only a sign on the fence and word-of-mouth, 15 people have already signed up.
And what they get is an apartment in a secure building, with all utilities paid, a community room with a kitchen for special celebrations, a reading room, two laundry rooms and picnic tables outside with a grill and even a shuffle board.
“They are not just apartments,” said Tay Seals, whose father was principal of Russell from 1937 until 1970. “They are very nice apartments. (Peeples) didn’t want it to look institutional.”
Coots, who has been on board for seven months, said she has been amazed at the changes.
“The community is very excited to come in here,” she said. “I have not heard any negative comments.”
Applications are taken by appointment only. Call (859) 552-6436.
Several features of the school remain. Some of the hallways are still lined with lockers although they are sealed and ornamental. Sections of the community room have flooring from the gym, and the clocks in the hallways are all original to the building. Murals, painted decades ago, also have been preserved.
New features include remote-controlled heating and air conditioning, elevators and skylights in some rooms that needed additional natural light.
In the community room, University of Kentucky art professor and sculptor Gary Bibbs has been commissioned to tell the history of the school and the teachers who worked there. His vision, which will be completed at a future date, includes blackboards with the history of Russell written in cursive, along with six desks and reading books used by students in past decades. On the walls will be 1-foot-by-1-foot replicas of simple-frame schoolhouses that will contain information about individual teachers and principals.
Jean Kaenizig Evans, who taught at Russell from 1969 to 1975, said she is thrilled with the renovations.
“I loved that they had taken something that was so important for the neighborhood and preserved it and renovated it and made it something special that can continue on,” she said. “I just love what has been done and that it is not just another derelict building to be vandalized and an eyesore.
“I was just here six years, but my ties are strong. It was special. The people made it that way.”
IF YOU GO
Tour of Russell School
What: The public is invited to tour the renovated Russell School Community Services Center and the Russell School Apartments after opening ceremonies Monday.
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. June 11
Where: The old Russell School, 520 Toner Street
Learn more: Call (859) 244-2221 or (859) 233-1561.
Applications to live in one of the apartments are taken by appointment only. To learn more, call (859) 552-6436.