Building Sciences, Faculty of Architecture Digitally Preserving Endangered Rosenwald Schools in Alabama

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In the early decades of the 1900s, when racial segregation was the norm, nearly 400 schools were built in rural Alabama to serve as educational institutions for African American children.

These were known as the Rosenwald Schools, and between 1912 and 1932 enabled African American children to get a formal education at a time when it would otherwise be nearly impossible.

Today these schools are rapidly disappearing and a team of researchers from the College of Architecture, Design and Construction at Auburn University are working to digitally preserve and bring attention to the Rosenwald Schools on the way. of disappearance. Funded by grants from their college, the university’s inaugural Creative Work and Social Impact scholarship program and the McWhorter Fund for Excellence, Junshan Liu, Bob Aderholdt Endowed Associate Professor at the McWhorter School of Building Science, and Gorham Bird, a visiting assistant professor at the School of Architecture, Urban Planning and Landscape Architecture, began his early work to document and digitally reconstruct four of these schools.

Using the latest digital documentation technology, their final product includes digital building information models, or BIMs, 3D printed physical models, as-built drawings and online virtual tours of these historic buildings. Their work will be presented through exhibitions to engage the public in the history of civil rights, teach emerging technologies and promote historic preservation.

“We started last summer,” said Bird. “It has now been almost 100 years since many of these schools were built. It is estimated that 10 to 12 percent of the original schools remain. Most are collapsing and there is an urgent need to document and preserve them before they disappear.

According to the research team, Alabama’s first six schools were built in Lee, Macon, and Montgomery counties. The first Rosenwald school was built in Loachapoka in 1914.

In 1917 Julius Rosenwald expanded the project and created the Rosenwald Fund to oversee the establishment of new rural schools. Until 1920, the projects were managed by the Tuskegee Institute and designed by the Faculty of Architecture at Tuskegee, Robert R. Taylor and WA Hazel. From 1920, the management of the new schools was taken over by an independent office of the Rosenwald Fund located in Nashville, Tennessee, and the design of the schools became the responsibility of Samuel L. Smith, a white architect.

“Historic preservation has always been a part of my academic interests,” said Bird. “These schools have advanced African American rural education beyond any other system, and they have maintained an impressive community impact. In fact, some alumni still hold meetings to this day.

“Economists have credited the Rosenwald schools with creating the African American middle class. Despite the inequalities that existed in the Jim Crow South, the remaining Rosenwald Schools are a testament to the self-determination and resilience of the communities who worked to build them. This heritage cannot be lost over time.

Liu is leading the project’s digital effort using drones, LiDAR scanners – a system that uses lasers to capture dimensional data from an object – 360-degree photography, photogrammetry, and other digital technologies to document and develop intelligent BIM models of these structures.

“We will ultimately create a digital and physical archive of these schools as historical sites that can be shared through exhibits to teach students and others,” Liu said.

Working with partners from the Alabama Historical Commission, or AHC, the project team identified four Rosenwald schools in Alabama for this initial work.

The four schools in Alabama are geographically diverse and include different building type and state designs. The team plans to use this sample of schools to test and refine the documentation and presentation approach, in anticipation of seeking additional external funds to map, document and preserve the remaining schools in the state and South.

“The AHC has long wanted to document the remaining Rosenwald schools,” said Bird. “This project is very much in line with their objectives.

The team identified sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including:

  1. New Hope School, Chambers County, 1915. One-teacher type of school;
  2. Mount Sinai School, Autauga County, 1919. Two-teacher type of school;
  3. Oak Grove School, Hale County, 1921. Two-teacher type school;
  4. Tankersley School, Montgomery County, 1922. Three-teacher school type.

“The benefits of this workflow include the speed of documentation and the level of detail and precision,” Liu adds. “These advantages allow more schools in Rosenwald to be digitally registered in a shorter period of time with a very high degree of quality.”

The research team completed a pilot documentation test through a field survey of one of Rosenwald’s schools, the New Hope School in Chambers County. Three-dimensional LiDAR scanning and aerial photogrammetry were used to develop a digital 3D BIM.

The team also uncovered archival documents, including the original design documents, through interviews with the president of the New Hope Foundation. An example of a virtual tour of Tankersley Rosenwald School in Montgomery County illustrates the urgent need for intervention and preservation of these schools.

The first phase of the project, comprising the four schools, is expected to be completed in spring 2023, Bird said.

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