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Johnny Vardeman: Some aging local schools were closed, some rescued
The old Main Street School in Gainesville is pictured being torn down in March 1978.

Gainesville city schools are in building mode with a new Enota Elementary School and one off Mundy Mill Road near Oakwood plus an addition to Centennial Arts Academy in the works.

Razing the aged Enota School triggers memories of other historic schools that closed or fell victim to the wrecking ball.

The late 1970s were filled with physical changes in city schools and farewells to Old Faithfuls that meant so much to many Gainesville residents.

Ironically, Main Street School, its building considered the birthplace of public education in Gainesville, was first to go, March 17, 1978. Despite protests from preservationists, the city on short notice knocked down the building that had stood since 1903 and served thousands of students, for a time even as a high school, but remembered most as an elementary school. As early as 1881, the Rev. C.B. Lahatte operated the Gainesville Methodist College on that site, succeeded by what was called Gainesville College in 1884.

Tearing down the 75-year-old building was controversial enough, but the site has been in contention since. Hall County bought the property from Gainesville and turned it into a jail and sheriff’s office. Later, Corrections Corp. of America leased it, but wanted to either buy the building or get out of the lease. In the end, Gainesville bought the property back from the county and apparently eventually hopes to use the facility as something other than a jail.

Next to close was Candler Street School in June 1978, but the building itself escaped demolition. Instead, Realtor Don Carter bought the property, and it still stands proudly, and to the delight of its elementary alumni, as an office building.

The main part of Candler Street School was built in 1908, and a new wing rose after World War II.

Seeing the old Main Street School fall just a few months earlier, many history-minded Gainesvillians worried Candler Street would meet the same fate until Carter bought the property from the city and converted the building into offices.

Candler Street School and the street itself were named for Gov. A.D. Candler, who lived in Gainesville. The former Candler School in the Hall County system also bore his name.

Of the old city school buildings besides Gainesville High, that left Miller Park and Fair Street on Gainesville’s southside.

Miller Park was next to close in June 1979. It had been an elementary school since 1948. The school was named for Mrs. Joe Miller, who with Mrs. Rafe Banks years earlier had campaigned for a park in that part of town. The city bought six acres of pasture from Byron Mitchell to form the park, and the school came later. The two women also were among the first members of Gainesville’s park and recreation board.

Thurman Purcell was Miller Park’s first principal, followed later by Henry Hill, Jack Purcell, Ernest Young, Mack Stancil and L.C. Baylor, who would become principal of Fair Street School for the third time. Miller Park sixth graders would go to Fair Street the next year.

Great fanfare, though somewhat sad, marked the closing of Miller Park with John Davis conducting the school band on the front lawn as students sat and listened.

The Miller Park school complex is home to the Salvation Army these days.

Fair Street School held just as many memories, housing primarily black students most of its life. It became desegregated in 1969 when the city schools’ desegregation plan went into effect. The original building, however, was replaced with a new facility on the site in 2013.

All of the school closings were part of a school consolidation plan. Ironically, at the time, city school enrollment had fallen from about 4,500 in the late 1960s to 2,800 in 1979.

Gainesville school enrollment has been increasing in recent years, and probably will be more than 8,000 in the system next school year.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.