Vacant School Building in VA

Shea Terrace Elementary School, Portsmouth Virginia
Date added: October 24, 2023 Categories: Virginia School
Front elevation looking the east (2001)

Shea Terrace Elementary School opened in September 1925 as the Sixth Avenue School in Portsmouth, Virginia. Located in the residential neighborhood of Shea Terrace, it was built to replace the Glasgow Street School. The Shea Terrace neighborhood is located on one of the fingers of land created by the various creeks and bays of the Elizabeth River with Port Norfolk to its west and Park View to its east. Shea Terrace Elementary School was built to replace an outmoded school during a period of growth in public school construction throughout the state of Virginia. It was part of an effort to improve educational facilities in the City of Portsmouth and its level of architectural sophistication is indicative of the increased importance attached to public education by the citizens of Portsmouth.

The city of Portsmouth was one of the four original settlements in the Hampton Roads area. The city was laid out in 1752 on land donated by a prominent ship owner and area merchant, Colonel William Crawford. Portsmouth's location along the Elizabeth River made it ideal for the transportation of goods and facilitated communication with other settlements in Virginia. Also, the excellent transportation opportunities available at Portsmouth attracted merchants and craftsmen to the area. These two elements greatly contributed to Portsmouth's growth and development, as well as its success as a settlement.

As Portsmouth developed so did the city's educational system. Private schools for both girls and boys existed in the city since its inception. The first academy in Portsmouth, the Portsmouth Academy, received its charter in 1827 and served as a school for more than twenty years. The Portsmouth Academy became the first public school building with the passage of the Underwood Constitution, July 6, 1869, that called for free schooling in the state of Virginia.

Like many other communities in the South, Portsmouth suffered considerably during and after the Civil War. The cost of living for the citizens of Portsmouth doubled between 1860 and 1866. Portsmouth accrued over $350,000 in debt, the city's warrants were practically worthless and the treasury possessed one dollar. It appears that Portsmouth's schools continued to operate during this time. However, it wasn't until 1885 that the first high school class graduated from Portsmouth Academy. There were eight students in this class and the basic curriculum consisted of history, geography, physics, English, Latin, algebra, and arithmetic. The future looked bright for Portsmouth in the waning years of the nineteenth century. The local Navy Yard built two of the first ships of the modern Navy, the USS Raleigh and the USS Texas in 1892. Additionally, Portsmouth celebrated the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America with great fanfare. By the turn of the twentieth century, the population of Portsmouth was 17,427.

The early years of the twentieth century brought great prosperity to Portsmouth. The city's population almost doubled, owed mostly to the celebration of the Jamestown Exposition of 1907 and the annexation of Scottsville and Prentis Place in 1909. This massive growth was evident in the school system of the city. In 1910, the School Board of Portsmouth decided to construct a Portsmouth High School and create different schools for the different grades. At this time, there were seven school buildings in Portsmouth, fifty-eight white teachers, fifteen African American teachers and no high school for African American students. The principals of the schools were expected to teach a full load of classes in addition to their administrative duties. First and second-grade children only attended school part-time. The curriculum for all public schools consisted only of the 3 R's, reading, writing, and arithmetic, a drastic change from the 1885 classes. The school buildings in early twentieth-century Portsmouth possessed no gymnasiums, auditoriums, libraries, or cafeterias.

Tremendous growth continued for Portsmouth during World War I. The population grew from 51,000 in 1917 to 57,000 in 1918. The Naval Yard constructed three new drydocks, four destroyers, and one battleship. The villages of Cradock and Truxton were established to house the influx of new employees into the Naval Yard. However, after the end of World War I, the population of the city began to decline despite the annexation of Port Norfolk. This decline was short-lived. The Navy decided to modernize some of its ships and Portsmouth became the center for this endeavor.

In order to accommodate the growing population, Portsmouth continued to build new schools. A 1921 map for a school population survey shows the location of several anticipated schools as well as a layout of the various school districts. At that time a school was projected in the approximate location of Shea Terrace Elementary. It also indicated that the Shea Terrace neighborhood was in its infancy with most of the growth concentrated immediately east of the school site. The Sixth Avenue School, later renamed Shea Terrace Elementary, was completed in August 1925 and opened for school in September of the same year. The Portsmouth Star reported, "The new Sixth Avenue School building at Shea Terrace containing sixteen rooms will be occupied as a replacement of the Glasgow Street School; which has been abandoned." The two-story, brick structure consisted of sixteen classrooms, a manual training room, a domestic service room, a large multi-purpose room labeled as Gymnasium and Assembly Room on the plans, a principal's office, teacher's room, infirmary, library and special room. The total cost of construction including equipment was $125,000. The 3-¼-acre lot cost $10,000. At the time of its construction, Sixth Avenue School was the second largest school in Portsmouth and it was a departure from Portsmouth schools constructed in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Sixth Avenue School consisted of more than just classrooms; it embodied the modern notion of a school with its gymnasium/assembly room, library and special rooms.

However, it appears that Portsmouth City Schools was severely underfunded at this time. Harry A. Hunt, Superintendent of Portsmouth Schools, stated in the Annual Report that "in comparison with other cities we are spending a very moderate amount of the City's revenue. Of the 196 cities between 30,000-100,000 population in this country 155 spend a larger percent of its revenue for schools than Portsmouth and only 39 spend a smaller percent. Other concerns of Superintendent Hunt involve the creation of special education classes. It must be noted that Sixth Avenue School held special education classes beginning in 1926-1927 school year and was the second school in the city to offer such classes. Additional topics of concern involved the creation of a vacation or summer school, night school and a Navy Yard school that would provide part-time education for Navy Yard Apprentices. Superintendent Hunt also expressed a concern for the student's health by enforcing a program to fight malnutrition and mandating that children be weighed and measured on a monthly basis.

The beginning of World War II brought more prosperity and growth to Portsmouth. In 1940 the city's population reached 50,745. The pronounced growth resulted in a housing shortage, forcing people to commute from as far away as Suffolk, Franklin, Surry Court House, and Elizabeth City, North Carolina. This population growth continued unabated in Portsmouth even after the end of World War II. This was due to continued military activities by the United States into the 1950s and Cold War hostilities. The construction of the tunnel under the Elizabeth River also served as a catalyst for population growth and economic prosperity. The per capita income of Portsmouth doubled during the late 1940s and into the 1950s. By 1950 the population of Portsmouth was 80,000 and the total area of the city was a mere ten square miles

Sixth Avenue School continued its role as an education facility throughout the twentieth century until June 2000. The student enrollment when the school opened its doors in 1925 was 532, and remained consistent throughout the twentieth century. In the early 1960s, Portsmouth changed the name of Sixth Avenue to Constitution Avenue, prompting a name change for the school as well. Sixth Avenue School became known as Shea Terrace Elementary, reflecting the name of the community surrounding the school instead of the street.

Shea Terrace Elementary School was erected during a burst of school construction throughout the state. At the turn of the twentieth century, Progressive Era reformers sought to remake the public school as the center of the community with a wider influence than just providing an education for children. They envisioned every public school in Virginia as a "community center where the citizens may unite for the improvement of the educational, social, moral, physical, civic, and economic interests." This movement to use schools as a catalyst for social change led to more control in the early twentieth century by the State Board of Education and diminished local power.

During the first two decades of the twentieth century, the state legislature passed several financial incentives for the construction of new schools, which led to a boom in school construction. The value of school property in Virginia increased from 8.5 to 39 million between 1910 and 1923. With the disbursement of money for local schools, the state also began to exercise tighter control over the actual construction of school buildings and required all plans to be approved by local and state superintendents. The Strode Act included specifications on ventilation, lighting, design, and toilet facilities. By 1911, the Department of Public Instruction was supplying, without cost, plans and specifications for sixteen different school designs. By 1920, the newly established Division of School Building provided plans, advised on sites, wrote specifications for buildings, and supervised the construction. This level of control raised the standards of design and construction throughout the state.

It was during this period of progressive reform and activist state participation in education that many of Portsmouth's schools were built. The same was true in other urban centers of the state. Between 1911 and 1925, twelve public schools were built in Portsmouth including the Pinner's Point, Port Norfolk, Oakdale, the Jefferson Street School, Robert E. Lee High School, the Fourth Ward schools, a school for African-American students, and additions to Woodrow Wilson High School.

Charles M. Robinson designed Shea Terrace Elementary School. Robinson was one of the most important Virginia architects of this period and is most noted for his work in designing schools at all educational levels, primary, secondary, and collegiate. Robinson (1867-1932) was born in Hamilton, in Loudoun County, Virginia, the son of architect James T. Robinson. He studied architecture under D. S. Hopkins of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and John K. Peebles, a Petersburg native. Charles Robinson practiced architecture in Altoona and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania before moving to Richmond in 1906. From 1910 to 1929 he served as the supervising architect for the Board of Public Instruction in Richmond and is associated with the design of at least twenty-nine new schools or additions built in that city. In addition to his work for the City of Richmond, he designed primary and secondary schools for Hanover, Henrico, and Louisa counties and the cities of Portsmouth, Newport News, Norfolk, and Fredericksburg among others. Robinson also was active in the design and campus layout at a number of state institutions of high learning. In 1908, he was employed to prepare a master plan for Madison College, one of the state's four normal colleges for women (now James Madison University). He created an elaborate Beaux Arts scheme that could be expanded in units without destroying the original plan.' He also designed a master plan for Radford University that was abandoned after the first two buildings were constructed. He designed a number of individual buildings at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia and Virginia State University in Ettrick. Perhaps his most-known collegiate work is the master plan for the College of William and Mary, which he designed in 1925. He also designed many of the buildings for that plan. Thought by many to be his most highly detailed collegiate work, the William and Mary campus and building plan has been credited with popularizing the Georgian Revival style for educational, residential, commercial, and religious uses throughout the country.

Although Robinson also designed churches, hotels, department stores, and residences, his work in Portsmouth appears to be largely focused on educational design. He is listed as the school architect for Portsmouth Public Schools on a map of the city's school districts and on the drawings for Shea Terrace Elementary School. He also designed the Colored School (1917), the Fourth Ward School at Jefferson and Fifth Streets (1911-1912), the Robert E. Lee High School at High Street and Fourth Avenue (1917) additions to Woodrow Wilson High School (1921), the Jefferson Street School (1921), the Pinners Point School (1922) and the Duke School (1925) in Portsmouth. In addition, he designed schools in Newport News, Hampton, Pheobus, Suffolk, Churchland, Norfolk, and Norfolk County, and an apartment building in Newport News.

Building Description

Shea Terrace Elementary School, built in 1925, is located in the Shea Terrace neighborhood of the city of Portsmouth. The long, two-story, red brick school with white trim is the largest building in this area of mostly one-story, middle-class, frame and brick homes built in the 1920s through 1940s. Several late-nineteenth or early twentieth-century, two-story homes are located on the waterfront of Scotts Creek indicating the area's earlier focus on agriculture and water industries. The school, with its ranks of classroom windows, decorative brickwork, and cast concrete panels creates an impressive appearance in the neighborhood. The interior of the school features a typical academic appearance of the period with its long corridors with terrazzo floors and its classrooms with large coat closets on one end with sliding doors. The architecture of Shea Terrace followed the latest educational standards of its day and created an environment in which children could learn.

Shea Terrace is prominently located on the corner of Constitution Avenue and Ann Street with the facade facing Constitution Avenue. Concrete sidewalks run along the front and side of the school on both Constitution Avenue and Ann Street. The front yard of the school is small, containing two large Pin Oak trees on either side of the sidewalk leading to the front entrance. There is a flagpole in the southwest section of the front yard. The asphalt-covered playground south of the main building is overgrown. An asphalt parking lot is located north of the main building. A chain link fence runs along the property line and separates the north parking lot from the front yard and encloses the south playground.

Shea Terrace Elementary School is a two-story, nine-bay building constructed of textured brick laid in five-course American bond. The tripartite facade has a five-bay projecting pavilion that contains most of the decorative features of the school. The pavilion has paired six-over-six light double-hung wood windows outlined by a soldier course. The second-floor windows are topped with a cast concrete keystone in the center of each pair. Elaborate, floral-design, cast-concrete panels are located between the first and second floors and there is decorative brickwork with colored headers forming a diamond-shaped pattern across the top of the center pavilion. A heavy, metal, modillioned cornice highlights the pavilion. A paneled brick parapet crowns the roof of the center pavilion with sections of cast concrete turned balusters at each end.

A cast concrete foundation, watertable and beltcourse, and a heavy but plain metal cornice runs along the remainder front facade and the sides of the building. A plain brick parapet topped with cast concrete on the front and sides conceals the school's shed roof. All windows have six-over-six light, double-hung, wooden sash and are grouped in ranks of five for the classrooms. There is a band of stucco between the first and second-floor classroom windows on the rear.

The main facade entry is recessed with decorative iron brackets visible in the corners. Poured concrete steps lead to bronze-colored, aluminum, double doors with nine lights flanked by two-lights with a three-light transom. These doors appear to be a replacement of the original although are probably similar in form. A simple metal awning is suspended over the front entrance by metal chains. A plain metal sign sits above the entrance with the school's name, Shea Terrace Elementary.

The north and south elevations are identical and contain two sets of windows. The first set of three windows has a center six-over-six light wooden sash window flanked by four-over-four light sash windows that lights the stair landing. Above these is a triple set of six-over-six light, double-hung, wooden sash windows. Both levels have brick sills and a soldier course of brick highlights these center windows as well as the entry below. Poured concrete steps lead to a set of metal, double doors, each with a single light. The doors do not appear to be original and what appear to have been flanking sidelights have been enclosed. The north steps have a simple metal pipe railing on each side while the south steps do not. Like the front entrance, the side entrances have a metal canopy suspended by metal chains and iron supports. In the center of the roof on the north and south elevations rests a decorative bracket of brick and cast concrete.

The rear elevation is relatively plain in comparison with the other elevations of the school. Stucco panels are located between the first and second-floor classroom windows. The central block has a rear entrance and a loading dock on the first floor and the second-floor windows light the multi-purpose room. A massive, central-exterior, brick chimney is visible on this elevation.

The floor plan for the school is linear with classrooms opening off of a single north/south corridor. The larger center section projects out on both the front and rear. Special functions and multi-use spaces are found in the center section on both floors. This section housed the main entrance, cafeteria, teacher's lounge, boys and girls gang toilets, and probably the original Principal's Office on the first floor, with a large multi-purpose room with stage on the rear of the second floor. The interior of Shea Terrace Elementary School is practical and utilitarian. A short entry corridor provides access from the front door to the main north/south corridor. Secondary entrances are located at the north and south ends of the building and have interior vestibules. The interior vestibule doors have been removed, however the sidelights with three lights above a recessed panel remain. The corridors have terrazzo floors and plaster walls with a glazed brick wainscot with a molded chair rail and a picture molding. The first-floor ceiling is pressed tin with an egg and dart border, while the entry corridor and second-floor corridor possess a dropped acoustical tile ceiling. The corridor doors are paneled with a single light or have two solid panels. Six-light transoms top the single doors while twelve-pane transoms top double doors. Almost all the transoms have been covered on the corridor side but the glass is visible on the room side. All doors have deep paneled reveals.

There is no main stair but one at each end of the north/south corridor. The closed string stairs have metal treads, risers, and railing with a molded, wooden handrail. The railing has paneled metal newels and vertical pickets. An additional molded wooden railing is attached along the wall of the staircase.

The classrooms are basically identical. All rooms contain a rank of five windows across one wall, providing ample natural light. All rooms possess hardwood floors with a molded baseboard. Chalkboards and bulletin boards with a chalk trough below and wide molded panels above where items could be displayed are found on the remainder of the walls. A large closet with recessed panel sliding doors is located on one end wall. The closet interior has cubbyholes and hooks for students' coats and school supplies. A small teacher's closet is located next to the large closet. About half of the classrooms still have the original plaster ceiling, while the other half have an acoustical tile ceiling that has been dropped to cover the top row of window lights.

Rooms with specialized functions are located in the center section of the building. The first-floor cafeteria appears to have been a classroom originally. The coat closet has been removed to provide access into the kitchen that also may not be original. There are several small rooms that flank the front door. Their last function appears to have been a teacher's lounge and storage but may have originally housed the principal's office. The principal's office, located at the north end of the first floor, was probably a classroom that was divided into smaller rooms using modern paneling. The gang bathrooms on the first floor have a tile floor with ceramic tile on the wall behind the sinks. Swinging double doors lead to the area containing fourteen toilet stalls. A loading area is beyond the toilets of the girls' restroom. A maintenance room with the furnace is situated between the boys' and girls' restrooms. A large multi-purpose room occupies half of the eastern portion of the center section of the second floor eliminating a through corridor on this floor. This room acted as both an assembly area and library for the students of Shea Terrace Elementary. The floor is carpeted and the walls have a narrow vertical board wainscot. The proscenium has a molded shouldered architrave opening and a curved projecting stage with steps at each end. The two sets of double doors leading into the room have been removed, however the twelve-light transoms remain. Two small rooms have been inserted into the corners of the room in the outside wall.

The most unusual rooms are two small rooms situated at the top of a single flight of stairs above the second floor. A door opens off the stairs and paired six-over-six light, double-hung window complete the interior wall. Originally, they allowed light into the corridor but are now painted. It appears that the room at the south end of the building was used as an infirmary or office for the school nurse. The use of the room at the north end of the corridor is not known.

Shea Terrace Elementary School, Portsmouth Virginia Front elevation looking the east (2001)
Front elevation looking the east (2001)

Shea Terrace Elementary School, Portsmouth Virginia Front elevation looking the southeast (2001)
Front elevation looking the southeast (2001)

Shea Terrace Elementary School, Portsmouth Virginia Facade, showing decorative element looking the east (2001)
Facade, showing decorative element looking the east (2001)

Shea Terrace Elementary School, Portsmouth Virginia Rear elevation looking the northwest (2001)
Rear elevation looking the northwest (2001)

Shea Terrace Elementary School, Portsmouth Virginia Right side elevation looking the northeast (2001)
Right side elevation looking the northeast (2001)

Shea Terrace Elementary School, Portsmouth Virginia End stairway looking the northeast (2001)
End stairway looking the northeast (2001)

Shea Terrace Elementary School, Portsmouth Virginia Second floor corridor looking the southwest (2001)
Second floor corridor looking the southwest (2001)

Shea Terrace Elementary School, Portsmouth Virginia Classroom showing window wall (2001)
Classroom showing window wall (2001)

Shea Terrace Elementary School, Portsmouth Virginia Classroom showing coat closets (2001)
Classroom showing coat closets (2001)

Shea Terrace Elementary School, Portsmouth Virginia Multi-purpose room (2001)
Multi-purpose room (2001)