People Preserving Places: Cape May’s Franklin Street School
This guest blog was written by PNJ volunteer Lauren Lembo. Lauren is an advocate for the preservation of New Jersey’s historic sites. She holds degrees in Art and Education, and plans to pursue a PhD in History.
Designed in the Colonial Revival Style by the architectural firm of Edwards and Green of Philadelphia and Camden, the Franklin Street School opened in September 1928 as an elementary school for Cape May’s African-American children.
The school was converted to an annex for Cape May City High School after segregation in New Jersey’s public schools was banned in 1947. It was used as a municipal storage area for some time, and through the years, fell into a state of disrepair. Advocacy efforts by the Center for Community Arts (CCA), a multicultural arts and humanities education association, led to the school’s designation as an African-American Historic Site by the state of New Jersey. The Franklin Street School was also distinguished as a contributing building within the Cape May National Register Historic District in 1995 for its significance to local African-American history.
In January 2002, CCA took their recognition of the importance of the Franklin Street School to Cape May’s history a step further, signing a 25-year lease for the school building with the City of Cape May. Currently, the Center is working with the city to rehabilitate the school for use as a community cultural center and the focal point for African-American heritage tours of the area. Funding from grants and various organizations will assist CCA in their vision to create a permanent educational center, housed in one of Cape May’s most significant historic landmarks.
Phase one of the revitalization project included removal of all environmentally hazardous materials, such as mold and asbestos, and stabilization of the building until repairs could begin. Structural stabilization and exterior reinforcement was completed in 2007. Current work consists of reinforcing structural framing, masonry restoration, wood window repairs, interior finishes, and mechanical
and electrical upgrades. Several critical repairs have been made, and additional improvements are in progress. Individuals, businesses, and government agencies are providing support for these vital repairs.
When completed, the school will house Center for Community Arts programs, including youth arts programs, community history programs, an artist-in-residence program, art programs for adults, art exhibits, and a community based radio station WCFA-LP 101.5FM. It will also house municipal recreational programs, along with the CCA’s John and Janet Nash African American History Archives, the archives of the Greater Cape May Historical Society, and a permanent exhibit of the history of the school and Cape May’s African-American community. The project is expected to cost a total of $3 million.
Funding for the Franklin Street School Rehabilitation Project has been made possible in part by the New Jersey Historic Trust, the African American Fund of New Jersey, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. CCA has recently received a Lowe’s Charitable and Educational Foundation Grant to accomplish the final elements of construction work. The project architect is Historic Building Architects, LLC, a Trenton-based firm that specializes in historic preservation.
The Franklin Street School stands as a reminder of Cape May’s diverse past. It evokes memories of deep division fostered through times of segregation and, at the same time, represents the vitality of Cape May’s African-American community. This Cape May landmark is a treasure of history whose story has come “full circle:” this historic school will now serve a united community as a great educational resource.