As the courts worked through how best to discipline the five teens who pleaded guilty to vandalizing the Ashburn Colored School last fall, a group of educators and builders pressed on in their effort to restore the structure.
Donations have poured in the four months since news first broke that the one-room schoolhouse, which served Loudoun’s black students from 1892 to the late 1950s, had been covered in racist and vulgar graffiti.
Although few knew about the history of the building, which looks more like a shed than a school, the students and educators at the Loudoun School for the Gifted had set out months earlier to raise money to repair it. The small private school purchased the property in 2014 with plans to reopen the schoolhouse to the public as a “living museum.” The surge of support in the wake of the vandalism accelerated those efforts.
The group has raised the $100,000 needed to return the building to its original state. The brunt of the work to repair the fragile wooden structure begins this week, and passersby will begin to see progress over the next month. The goal is to open the schoolhouse to the public by late spring.
“We’re working hard to not change it, but just strengthen it,” said Deep Sran, founder and academic lead at Loudoun School for the Gifted.
Jeff Lagana, who Sran called a “god send,” has helped connect Sran with carpenters, masons, electricians, and other subcontractors to complete the project. Lagana, the second generation owner of JH Lagana Floor Service in Ashburn, also has poured countless volunteer hours into the project. He removed the rotting floorboards and beadboard and, this week, will return with others to begin to rebuild the guts of the structure.
Beneath the floorboards, Lagana uncovered entire tree trunks, some still with bark on all sides, that served as floor joists. Sran said the more work is done on the building, the more evident is the care that was taken by the small group of community members who had a mission to provide a safe place for their kids to learn but had very little resources.
Workers will need to repair the foundation and replace some of the joists, before installing 1920s-period pinewood for the floors. On the to-do list this month is also to replace parts of the siding with raw oak board. Sran thanked Tart Lumber in Sterling for searching nationwide for the material that is no longer used in modern construction.
The restoration work also includes reinforcing the existing studs with pressure-treated wood and repairing electrical wiring to return power to the three simple bulbs that dangle from the ceiling. Sran said they don’t want to install more lighting, or even insulation or heat, because the building would not have had that when it closed in the ’50s.
“We’re trying to leave as much of the original material as possible and only add just enough to reinforce and stabilize it,” he said. “To the extent possible, we want to make it look and feel the way it did when students were here.”
The final step will be to anchor the structure to several concrete piers. “It will be structurally sound,” Lagana said. “We’re doing a lot of extra steps to make sure that building is never ever moved again.”
Lagana, who’s worked as a general contractor for 45 years, said it’s been a pleasure to help pull together some of the best craftsmen in the area to protect what can be kept and carefully mend what can’t. In the 69 years since his father started JH Lagana Floor Service, the community has been good to his family, so “it’s time to give back,” he said.
“I’ve given a lot of free time there, but I enjoy it,” Lagana said. “To see something like this put back as close as possible as to its original state, I really just think that’s amazing.”
The full plan for the 3.1-acre site is to create a “center for learning,” with the schoolhouse on one end of the property and a state-of-the-art school building, the home of the Loudoun School for the Gifted, on the other. The school has operated in a business park just off Loudoun County Parkway since it opened in 2008.
The county Board of Supervisors is expected to approve the special exception request for the new school facility next month, clearing the way for a groundbreaking in April. That building is slated to be about 14,000 square feet, with room for 120 students.
When the full project is complete, Sran pictures the campus like a timeline of education history. Passersby will see what the school was once like on the left—small, simple and segregated—and what it can become on the right.
Of the schoolhouse, Sran wants it to offer much more than a typical museum. “I’m trying very hard to not just limit ourselves to creating a historical artifact,” he said. “This is a tool that we can use to educate for the future—almost a place to build history, not just look back and study it.”
Follow the project’s progress at loudounschool.org/oldschool.