Team Pursues Virtual, Physical Historic Preservation of Disappearing Black Schools

March 11, 2024 By Matt Kelly, Matt Kelly,

Jody Lahendro and Will Rourk are on a mission to preserve history.

While both men are University of Virginia alumni with master’s degrees in architectural history, they approach the task differently. Lahendro, a former UVA Facilities Management preservation architect, applies a Stanley folding rule, producing intricate building diagrams on graph paper, noting all salient details.

Rourk, who teaches architectural preservation, arrives on a preservation site with a pickup truck of equipment and a caravan of graduate students. Together, the group makes laser scans of buildings and artifacts that are fed into a computer to create an exacting virtual model of the building, something a person can “walk through” with virtual reality goggles. 

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The two men are currently working to preserve a Rosenwald School in Newtown, Virginia.  Rosenwald Schools originated in 1912 through a partnership between Booker T. Washington, then president of the Tuskegee Institute, who recognized the educational needs of rural African Americans; and Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears & Roebuck at the time, who provided the seed money. The buildings, dedicated to educating African American students, followed a template for one-, two- and three-teacher schools, with simple yet elegant utilitarian designs. 

The inside of the broken down Rosenwald

Jody Lahendro, right, explains the importance of some of the school’s features before the laser scanning begins. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“The community had to put up approximately a third of the funds for getting the schools built,” Lahendro said. “The state had to put up another third, and then Rosenwald put up a third.”

Albemarle County was once home to seven Rosenwald Schools. Two were demolished; three were converted into houses and drastically renovated. The St. John’s Rosenwald School in Cobham has been converted into a community center, a project Lahendro and Rourk worked on. The final one in Albemarle County is a jewel: the Newtown Rosenwald School, built in 1926, located in the western part of the county.

Windows letting in a soft light over an old desk
The Rosenwald School had high windows that were oriented to take advantage of natural light. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“I have inspected between 20 to 30 Rosenwald and non-Rosenwald schools in Central Virginia, and I have not seen a Rosenwald with as much historic integrity as this one has,” Lahendro said. “It still has bookshelves that were part of the original building. It was built exactly like the prototype plan put out by the Rosenwald program for a two-teacher, north/south school. The high level of craftsmanship demonstrates the pride that community builders had for this school.”

For Lahendro, donating his time and talent to preserving a neglected part of history is a labor of love. It is similar for Rourk, who uses these opportunities to impress lessons upon the phalanx of graduate students working with him.

Rourk’s course, taught through Andy Johnston’s Historic Preservation program in the School of Architecture and in collaboration with the UVA Library, provides the students with practical experience. 

A side exterior view of the school

Rourk shows graduate students how to set up one of the laser scanners to record the details of the Newtown Rosenwald School. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“Jody has really been helpful in connecting the Historic Preservation program in Architectural History with real-life preservation,” Rourk said. “Students are contributing to ‘real’ work.”

Grace Guirl of St. Louis, studying for a master’s degree in architectural history, is fascinated by Rourk’s data-gathering techniques in the field and what they reveal about buildings.

“I want to learn how buildings are constructed and how they evolved,” Guirl said. 

Dustin Thomas, a PhD candidate in ancient Mediterranean art and archaeology, enjoys the field work and familiarizing himself with local culture. He hopes one day to apply Rourk’s laser-scanning techniques to ancient sites. 

While students selected the optimum spots to set up scanners around the school, Rourk worked by himself on the foundation, a feature that helped the building survive as long as it has.

“This is a unique building as far as the Rosenwald Schools that I’ve experienced.” Rourk said. “Most of these schools were built on piers to allow air flow underneath, as an integral part of the design for healthy learning environments that was essential to Rosenwald Schools. The builders couldn’t really do that in this case because of the extreme topography upon which the building was sited. The hillside demands a more structural foundation to anchor the building to the ground.”

The foundation of the school
The Newtown School’s stone foundation helped preserve it over the years. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Newtown is unique because Rourk was actually able to go underneath it and more accurately scan the substructure, which is not the case with most other Rosenwald Schools built on piers.

The Rosenwald School work is a logical extension of what Lahendro did during his career at UVA, where he worked on restoration and renovation projects such as the Rotunda, Garrett Hall, the president’s house at Carr’s Hill and the relocation of Varsity Hall.

“Before I retired, I was asked to help with St. John Rosenwald School,” Lahendro said. “I started studying what Rosenwald Schools were and the history of African American education. And I started paying attention to other African American sites and looking at a whole culture that I knew nothing about.”

He became fascinated with the schools and their historical importance.

“It’s critical to save the schools because they represented a  revolution in African American education, a partnership between the races,” Lahendro said.

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications