Newtown School an Outstanding Example of 1920’s-Era School Architecture
Before widespread air conditioning and prefabricated building materials, the enterprising architects charged with designing Rosenwald Schools carefully built in features that would benefit school children and their teachers.
Joseph D. (Jody) Lahendro, a retired UVa historic architect, has a particular interest in Rosenwald Schools and has visited the Newtown School in Greenwood several times, noting the distinctive touches in this particular school, which has been well preserved, he said, and protected by Mt. Zion Church, its owner. On his most recent visit in November, Lahendro did an exhaustive documentation of the many details that make the building distinctive, and said this historic property is an outstanding example of its kind.
Quite a few schools had been built in the county between 1921 and 1926, a joint effort by Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute and Julius Rosenwald, a wealthy philanthropist. Albemarle County was just one location for these strategically placed schools. They were built throughout the South to replace the dilapidated and poorly equipped schools designated for children of color. Only a handful now remain in this area: Lahendro said some have been destroyed by time and weather, and some have been converted for other uses. That was also the case with the Newtown School, which became a community center, but this use allowed the school to retain many of its best features.
Lahendro believes the school benefitted, not only from the state-of-the art design furnished by the Rosenwald Schools, but by the high level of interest and talent in the Greenwood community. “It was part of the deal that the community using the school would contribute the labor needed to build it, as well as part of the expense,” he said. He found examples of skilled workmanship in the stonework by Joseph Green that created the basement (most schools did not have them) and the graceful touches added by local craftsmen. Details in the doors, windows, entrance way, even the chalk tray and bookshelves, indicate that there were plenty of skilled artisans in the Greenwood area. “None of these touches were mass produced,” he said.
It’s worth noting that the Black communities of Albemarle County and other counties and states were required to donate time and money, while also paying taxes that went for the building of schools for white children, who were educated free of charge. Rosenwald’s idea was to donate the larger part of the expense to make the situation a little more fair. At the time the school was built, Newtown was the largest Black community in Albemarle County, according to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
Most schools were built at a cost of between $2,000 and $3,000. Records show that the Newtown School (then called the Greenwood School) cost $3,700. The Rosenwald fund contributed $700, the community, $500; with public funds and benefactors making up the difference.
Lahendro said the selection of the school site was the first important decision, as it determined the placement of the windows. Windows were placed to allow the maximum amount of light throughout the day, coming in at just the right height, the right angle and in the right direction to avoid glare, and to prevent shadows falling over the students’ work.
Newtown was a two-teacher school, Lahendro explained, and there was originally a barrier between the two classes. This helped with noise control as well as separating the lower grades (grades 1 to 3) from the upper grades (grades 4 to 6), but classrooms could become stuffy in the warmer months. To enable breezes to blow through both classrooms, local carpenters built interior windows above the barrier. The windows were perfectly balanced so the teacher could tip them with a pole and they’d remain at the right slant to circulate fresh air.
Lahendro also noted the stone foundation and the basement at the school. This was unusual, he said, but often the builders took advantage of the skills of the neighborhood during construction. There were plenty of rocks around, and the Newtown community had a talented stonemason in Joseph Green, whose labor was part of the required community contribution. “It was built into a hill,” Lahendro said, “and created a storage space for the coal used to heat the school.”
During a work day in 2021, church and community members chopped weeds, cleaned the interior, and tore down some features that were in disrepair or that compromised the historic value of the church. Since then, a tree fell on the roof, but quick repairs by Mt. Zion protected the ceilings and floors from further water damage. When Lahendro returned last fall, he left even more convinced of the building’s significance. “I’ve seen dozens of these schools,” he said, “but I’ve never seen one with so many of details intact.”
He said the significance is not only historic but a commentary on the 1920s community that built the school. “This school was built with tremendous effort,” he said. “You can see so much skill and so much pride in the careful workmanship.”
Personal hygiene and household cleaning items were depleted by community needs in January, and the Crozet Cares Closet needs restocking. The need is great, especially for deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, paper towels, liquid hand soap and dish detergent. Bring items or financial contributions to Crozet Baptist Church, Denise Ramey’s real estate office at Clover Lawn, or to Emanuel Episcopal Church. The closet will be open for those needing these items on Feb. 3 from 9 to 11 a.m.