Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects has been involved with the initial transformations and has helped with the renovations over the years.
When Lauren Myatt, Principal with Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects, looks at the Harriett Tubman School, she sees it in three waves.
There’s what it has been, what it is right now, and what, someday, it could be.
A school shuttered
The school opened in 1949 as the only all-black high school in Howard County, Maryland. When segregation ended, rather than integrate white students into the school, it was closed.
The last students to pass through those school doors left in 1965.
For the next 50 years, it was used by Howard County Public Schools as offices and then a maintenance shop before being acquired by the County Government.
That’s when Myatt and her team came in to the picture.
Through Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects’ on-call contract with Howard County, Myatt and her team did a life safety code and re-occupancy assessment of the building.
The county’s end goal: transform the school into a cultural and education center for the community.
Digging into the history
The architects at Murphy & Dittenhafer weren’t making changes yet, just taking stock of the building and figuring out what it would take to give the space new life.
“It’s certainly about preserving the architecture, preserving the building,” Myatt says. “But it’s also about creating a space where that historic message is going to be passed on.”
Architectural designer Sam Siegel dug in to that history.
He learned that Harriett Tubman may have traveled through the area with the underground railroad.
The neighborhood surrounding the school used to be an all-black community — founded when a slave owner freed his slaves and gave each a parcel of land.
Siegel searched the library for information and even interviewed old students from the school to get a complete picture of the area.
“The historical significance isn’t just important to the project,” Siegel says, “it is the project.”
Natural light pours in through large windows that line the single-story brick building that is the Harriett Tubman School.
For all its years of use, the school is in pretty good shape, Myatt says.
The windows will need to be restored or replaced, some hazardous materials in the flooring and ceiling will need to go, and there’s a lot of refinishing and restoring that will need to happen inside the old building.
But it’s a sturdy school with robust architecture.
It was well built, and it can be restored well, too.
The end use of the Harriett Tubman School hasn’t been settled just yet, but progress is being made.
The County established the Harriett Tubman School Advisory Council, and they met for the first time in June.
Community members from diverse backgrounds, including some graduates from the Harriett Tubman School, have been invited to be involved. Myatt is on the Council, too, bringing an architectural perspective to help come up with a new concept for the end use of the building.
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It’s exciting to see the project move forward, she says.
She loves the idea of the building housing museum exhibits and being a multicultural center.
“There are some really important stories that need to be told in ways that bring the community together,” she says.
As the project moves forward, much of the building may be restored to look as it did when it was first built. But, unlike a typical museum or exhibit, it could be a place where people could feel, touch, and experience what it was like to be a student there 70 years ago.
“The goal is not to transform this into something unrecognizable,” Myatt says. “We’ll work with the architecture that’s already there and really elevate it to another level.”