The original item was published from May 21, 2018 12:00 pm to May 22, 2018 12:26 pm
The parcel of land bounded by C, D, Chase, and Gregory Streets in Pensacola is still commonly referred to by residents as “the Blount School,” although the school that once thrived there was permanently closed in 1982, the building demolished in 2012.
Before the school was built, the city had designated the property for residential use; the Maxent Tract plat, recorded in 1906, envisioned 30 residential lots, plus some green space, on the 2.6 acre parcel. But fate had other plans.
For decades, the story of the property mirrored the story of America’s public education system, starting with an idea that took root in 1852, when Massachusetts became the first state to pass a compulsory education law. By the turn of the century, 33 other states had followed suit, and by 1918, all 48 states required students to complete, at minimum, an elementary school education.
The new laws required new schools. In Pensacola, the first public school, an academy for boys, was founded in 1870. (There were other schools in the area before that, but they were private; some of them switched over when Pensacola’s public school system was formally established in 1872.) In 1886, a second new school was constructed, on Palafox between Jackson and Gadsden. This location became Pensacola High School in 1905, with Joseph Lockley serving as its first principal.
Ten years later, a new elementary school was built on the C Street parcel. It was called the J. B. Lockley School in honor of Pensacola High’s principal. Lockley Elementary operated for 22 years until 1937, when a second, much larger, building was constructed onsite and the school was converted to a junior high, serving grades 7 through 9. At the same time, the school was renamed: W. A. Blount Junior High.
The new name was an homage to William Alexander Blount. Born in Clark County, Alabama, in 1851, Blount relocated to Pensacola with his parents and siblings in 1857. The family was well-off, and Blount would eventually have a distinguished career in law and public service. But before he was an attorney or a statesman, he was a teacher. Between stints at the Universities of Georgia and Florida, he taught at Roberts High School in Cantonment.
Blount soon left his teaching post to pursue a law degree at UF. Afterward, he returned again to Pensacola, married, and established a legal practice. Eventually, he was elected to the state senate. Though his stint with the legislature was brief, he was there long enough to sponsor the bill that would extend compulsory education in Florida beyond the elementary level. It was this support of education expansion that led the School Board to rename the new junior high after him in 1937.
For the next three decades, Blount School would be a hive of activity, particularly once the Baby Boomers arrived. Belva Cunningham, who attended from 1958 until 1961, vividly remembers the throngs of students who filled the classrooms, halls, and buses during that era:
We went to school very early because the bus driver had another route to pick up before the start bell at 8 AM. So I was among the crowd that got to school before 7 AM. We hung out on the picnic tables in the courtyard. There was no grass, just lots of huge, wonderful trees along the sidewalks on the property.
Our bus carried so many students that all the seats would be full and the aisle packed, usually with two people standing side by side. If you were lucky, someone seated might hold your books so you didn’t drop them as the bus stopped, started, and sloshed you around as it traveled to school.
I don’t think there were ever less than 40 students in any of my public school classes from first through 12th grade. Blount was full.
It was already an old school when I started. I had a teacher in 8th grade who told us that when she first started teaching there, she helped plant the trees in the courtyard. By the time I arrived they were so huge I couldn’t reach around the trunks.
However, in the early ‘80s, as the last of the Baby Boomers reached adulthood, enrollment at Blount, along with many other schools around the county, dwindled. The Escambia County School Board faced tough decisions about consolidating or closing schools, and in 1982, Blount was put on the chopping block.
After it closed, Blount School sat vacant for more than 10 years. Then, in 1996, a man named Frank McGinley purchased the property for $5,000, a transaction that became the stuff of rumor and legend: Frank McGinley was a retired cop who had won the lottery. Frank McKinley wanted to develop a retirement home for the elderly. Frank McKinley was harassed by Code Enforcement. Frank McGinley was a squatter.
What does seem clear is that Frank McGinley loved the stately old school, and hoped to convert at least part of it into a private residence, with some sort of mixed use probably intended for the rest. Those who saw the interior during this time said the former school lobby had indeed been transformed into a beautiful home. But sadly, the complexities, and costs, associated with redevelopment of a historic property proved too much for him—among other issues, the building contained asbestos—and the project was never completed.
In 2004, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan, a group of investors doing business as Blount Development LLC purchased the parcel for $400k. However, they never initiated a development project, and by 2011, the old buildings were severely dilapidated. Newly elected Mayor Ashton Hayward sought a solution. In September of that year, the city acquired the parcel for $225k. Most of the monies used were grant funds from HUD’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program, with the remainder coming from the city.
The CDBG program has a number of objectives, one of which is the prevention or elimination of blight. By now the Blount School certainly qualified. Therefore in 2012, using additional CDBG funds plus a contribution of more than $160k from Escambia County, Pensacola City Council voted to approve demolition, which included asbestos removal, razing the two school buildings, and site clearance.
Work was completed in 2013. When it was finished, city staff hosted a design charrette for the neighborhood to brainstorm about possible future uses for the property. Residents expressed interest in a park; failing that, they liked the idea of single-family detached houses. There was strong consensus that any development should include an off-street parking component, and that it should lift the neighborhood.
In 2017, the city published a request for proposals for the site. Two developers responded. Interestingly, both referred back to the historic Maxent Tract. In May 2017, a three-person selection committee recommended that City Council should select the proposal submitted by ParsCo, a Pensacola construction firm; and on December 14, Council voted to move forward with the ParsCo contract.
The winning proposal from ParsCo follows the Maxent Tract very closely, with 30 residential lots and green space in the middle. After more than a century, then, it looks like 113 North C Street will finally see its residential use!