Symbol of an Era
By Robin S. Lattimore
Foothills Magazine of The Charlotte Observer, Jan 5, 1997
It has been said that the places we remember from our childhood seem smaller when we grow up. That isn’t always true.
For Myrtle Mashburn, the sheer magnitude and scale of Cliffside School is just as impressive today as it was when she first entered its doors,75 years ago. Not once in the past seven and one-half decades has she stopped realizing just how magnificent the structure is and how fortunate she was to attend school there.
“I was raised out in the country a few miles outside of town, and I had never seen a building as grand or as large as Cliffside School,” Mashburn recalled. “Even today, I still feel rather small and insignificant compared to its size. You can imagine how I felt as a little girl coming here for the first time.”
Mashburn, 81, who was a first-grader when the school opened in 1922, is not alone in her admiration. A group of alumni and members of the school’s administration and staff are currently working to earn the building a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
“This building holds a special place in the heart of a great number of people and in the history of this community,” said Phillip White, the Cliffside Elementary School principal who is heading the effort. “We have wanted this type of distinction and honor for this building for quite a while. This just seemed like the best time to work toward making this honor a reality.”
This spring, the school community and alumni will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the official laying of the cornerstone of the building, which took place on April 22, 1922. While this group is planning a weekend of festivities for late April, the nomination process for National Register status is all that will be completed by that time. Actual listing of the property, if approved by the National Register office in Washington, D.C., will occur much later in the year.
“Unfortunately, we did not attempt to gain National Register status early enough for a possible listing by April,” White said. “If we are successful, we will certainly plan an event later in the year to mark the occasion.”
Fascinated by its history
In his 28-year tenure as principal at Cliffside, White has become fascinated by the history of the mill town and by the architecture and the story of the school building, which stands on a commanding ridge in the middle of the community. He has collected thousands of photographs, newspapers, historical documents, maps, blueprints and other items that detail Cliffside’s heritage from before the turn of the century.
Though he has helped plan a number of reunions and anniversary celebrations for the school over the years and has often shared his collection of memorabilia with the community, White feels that gaining National Register recognition for the property will be one of the most important contributions he and school alumni can make toward the preservation of Cliffside’s history.
White became interested in getting the Cliffside School building listed on the register after alumni of R-S Central Hight School in Rutherfordton were successful in getting that school listed in 1992. It was the R-S Central nomination that familiarized him with the procedure required for gaining National Register status.
White’s first step was to contact David Ford Hood, a National Register consultant and architectural historian from Vale, who had prepared the application for the R-S Central nomination and who also submitted the application for the downtown Rutherfordton business district in 1944. Hood had visited Cliffside School during the R-S Central project and was amazed with its architecture and how the majority of the structure had remained unchanged for seven decades.
Hood even included information about Cliffside School and nearby Henrietta-Caroleen High School in his nomination of R-S Central, realizing that a description and brief history of these schools would only magnify the importance of school construction in Rutherford County during the 1920s and aid in the acceptance of the original R-S Central High School to the National Register.
Confident that Cliffside will gain National Register acceptance, Hood is no less determined to be meticulous in his preparation of the application, which he hopes to have completed by late winter. Preparing the extensive National Register application requires hours of studying the history and construction of a particular building, and photographing many of the building’s interior spaces as well as the structure’s facade, rear and side views.
“Cliffside School is an excellent example of the Classic Revival architecture that was prominent during the 1920s,” Hood said recently. “More importantly, it is a genuine example of an ‘enlightened paternalism’ evident from its construction by the Raleigh Rutherford Haynes family and the giant textile mill operations that they owned in Rutherford County.”
It was a common practice of philanthropic leaders and textile magnates such as the Haynes family to supply as much of the needs of their mill employees as possible, Hood said. Cliffside School was an extension of that vision, which included most of the public buildings, churches and mill houses that made up the community, and also the railroad, bank, library, dairy, stores and public utilities used by mill employees.
“The Haynes family was greatly interested in the well-being and the quality of life for the people of the community,” White said. “This school was built at a time when most sections of North Carolina still educated children in small one- and two-room clapboard buildings. More than anything else it is a symbol of that bright period just after World War I when community leaders began to see that a much more productive and happy people were often the result of a quality basic education.”
The Cliffside School building was designed by a famous Charlotte architect, Louis H. Asbury, who also designed the Rutherford County Courthouse in 1925. And it was constructed with the finest materials available.
Fashioned of 2 million red bricks and trimmed with blocks of Indiana limestone, the main visual element of the building is its monumental portico, which displays four hand-chiseled Ionic capitals atop 26-foot columns.
No rest rooms at first
The physical layout of the building originally included 24 classrooms, a library, 800-seat auditorium and numerous utility spaces. However, despite its massive appearance and estimated cost of $250,000 — comparable to $5 million today — the building was designed without restroom or cafeteria facilities, and there is no mention in original construction documentation that telephones were installed in the building.
“Regardless of the substantial effort that was made to ensure that this school was the very best it could possibly be,” Hood said, “the 1920s were still a very provincial period for most Americans. Indoor toilet facilities and a large fully equipped kitchen were still unheard of in most public school buildings. It was perfectly natural for this state-of-the-art building to have been designed and constructed without them.”
Each classroom was designed with two cloakrooms for coats, scarves and hats, and access stairwells were placed at each end of the building for convenience. Stretching the limits of modernity for the early 1920s, each room in the building was wired for electric lighting at a time when a number of schools in Rutherford County still depended on oil lamps and daylight to illuminate interior spaces.
“We always felt very privileged to go to school there,” said Frank Splawn, who attended the school in the 1930s and 1940s. “This was the finest building around when I was growing up. They just don’t build them like they used to.”
Shortly after the school opened, a number of modern conveniences were added, including rest room facilities on the ground floor in space that had originally been used as classrooms.
Just 10 years after it opened, the school building was purchased by the Rutherford County Board of Education from Cliffside Mills for a cost of $130,000. At that time, Dr. Earl Sumner Draper, who designed Myers Park in Charlotte and who served as landscape architect for other buildings in Rutherford County, including R-S Central, was contracted to complete the landscape design for the property.
Although the school was originally operated with both elementary and secondary grades in the same building, the last hight school class graduated from the school in 1959. Later the school was operated as a K-8 institution until recently when it was changed to a K-5 school. Today, 431 students walk the halls of the school, almost the same number of students who enrolled in 1922.
“The last 75 years have seen remarkable changes in education and in the types of school buildings that are constructed,” White said. “The most remarkable thing about Cliffside School is that it has survived decades of consolidations and new school constructions that have seen many of Rutherford County’s oldest schools fade away. We are very fortunate that this building still exists as a physical reminder of the earlier days of standardized education in this county.”
Once Hood has completed the application for the National Register of Historic Places, it will be reviewed by the N.C. Office of Historic Preservation in Raleigh before being submitted to the National Register Office in Washington. After approval, the National Register committee sends confirmation to the governor of North Carolina and to the N.C. Department of Archives and History as well as to local officials connected with the property, including the superintendent of the Rutherford County school system.
“Increasingly, school buildings from the 1920s and before are gaining notoriety as architectural treasures,” Hood said. “Cliffside School is among a small handful of those schools that still convey grand architectural style and scientific planning and curriculum development.
“It is a rare gem from an era that will never be again.”
Reprinted with permission from The Charlotte Observer. Copyright owned by The Charlotte Observer.
Footnote: The Cliffside School building was accepted into the National Register of Historic Places in 1999, two years after this article appeared.
Correction: The principal of Cliffside School, Phillip White, wants you to know the above article is in error: the original building did indeed have restrooms. There was one just off the principal’s office and another in the teacher’s lounge. Students went to the boys’ and girls’ separate facilities in the basement. The rest of the basement area was unfinished dirt floor space. Doors were in each end of the bottom hall to block off this area. Those doors were removed a few years ago. The unfinished area was divided into classrooms and storage rooms in the late 20″s. The lunchroom was added in existing classroom space in 1937 when the school lunch program was started.