When the machines go to tear down the 89-year-old Cauley-Wheeler building on the Lucy C. Laney High School campus this summer, the city will be losing more than a deteriorating schoolhouse, according to Willie Harris.
The building is the last remaining structure from the Haines Normal and Industrial Institute, a school charted by Lucy Craft Laney in 1886 to educate black children. Most of the school’s buildings were razed when it closed in 1949 to make way for Laney High, but the Cauley-Wheeler building remained, reminding all of the educator’s legacy and history.
“That’s a piece of history that can’t be duplicated,” said Harris, the second vice president of the Haines Alumni Association. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone and anything else is left to memory. But memory passes when a body leaves this Earth.”
Because of its structural flaws and deterioration, the Richmond County Board of Education plans to demolish the building when a $20 million renovation project begins at Laney in August. Board attorney Pete Fletcher said there are plans to replicate the building on the back part of campus and use some of the original materials for the walkway or plaques.
Benton Starks, the senior director of facilities and maintenance, said the 1924 building has issues with the structure and heating and air system that would make it difficult to preserve.
During the two-year project, Laney will have new classrooms built, old ones torn down, a new kitchen and cafeteria, and renovations to remaining classrooms and the gymnasium, which would make it difficult to work around the Cauley-Wheeler building, Starks said.
The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008, but the school system has the authority to demolish it because the structure does not receive federal funding, according to Fletcher.
Still, Historic Augusta Executive Director Erick Montgomery said it is a shame to not preserve such an important structure, especially when so many other buildings in the Laney-Walker neighborhood have disappeared over the years.
The building is being used by the Haines Alumni Association for meetings and as a small museum, so it was not to the point of no return, he said.
“If you want to get rid of a building, you say it’s in terrible condition and the cost to renovate is too high,” Montgomery said. “The Laney-Walker Historic District and neighborhood is just being dismantled one building at a time. Its history is just disappearing before everyone’s eyes. ... It’s just under assault.”
Montgomery pointed to the Immaculate Conception church and school demolished in 2012, the deteriorating state of the original C.T. Walker home and demolitions around Kozy Korner near 12th Street and Laney-Walker.
Harris said the alumni association, which has nearly 90 active members, was contacted by a representative of the school system and told that the Cauley-Wheeler building had to be demolished because of its condition and role in the campus renovations.
Although Harris said he does not agree with the demolition, he said the group did not want to protest the decision and delay the school’s construction efforts.
With many of the association’s members well into their 80s, he said, there has to be a renewed effort to keep the memory of Lucy C. Laney alive when the people and physical reminders are fading away.
“That building is really the last link (to Laney) except for her grave,” Harris said.