The Mississippi Coast has such a rich 19th-century history that sometimes the 20th century gets short shrift, and maybe the fate of East Ward School, built in 1921 and designed in an eclectic combination of the Prairie and Craftsman styles by local architectural firm Shaw & Woleben (a practice carried on by the original principal’s grandson as Shaw Design Group), can be explained by a lack of interest by the Powers That Be in the last one hundred years. I’m sure there are other explanations too, but I’m trying to be kind this week, so I’ll not go there.
The school, which stood at the back of its lot on Beach Boulevard east of downtown Gulfport, was heavily damaged by the storm surge and the high winds of Katrina. About half of the roof on the original two-story section of the building was blown away, structure and all, and water from the surge poured through the first floor. You would think that combination would have destroyed the building right away, but as you can see in the photo of the second floor above, the building was still solid, and structural engineers said it was in need of shoring and a major roof repair to keep it in a mothballed condition until the owners could make decisions about its future.
In fact, the damage was similar to the Waveland School, which was at the epicenter of the storm and remained standing, battered and with a collapsed wing. As you may recall, the Waveland School re-opened earlier this year and earned an award from the Mississippi AIA. Why did Waveland School get repaired and East Ward get demolished? I think it all comes down to leadership, as it often does in crisis situations. The leaders of Waveland recognized the sigificance of their most historic civic landmark to the rebuilding of their community, while the school board and superintendent of Gulfport saw the promise of a quick payday from a hoped-for land boom, deciding they could sell the vacant property easier than they could repair the building, even with FEMA money. The Gulfport school board claimed they could sell their 1+ acre property for $7 million dollars, but only if the building was demolished. In the end, the local residents were too busy with their own rebuilding to devote energy to saving East Ward, and it was finally demolished (at FEMA’s and my expense) in February 2008.
I hear that the school board has recently been talked out of putting 22 rental houses on the lot and will now offer the land for sale. I couldn’t help but notice last time I passed there, looking both ways, that there are about 60 miles of mostly vacant land for sale surrounding it.
This post is the 4th in the week-long Katrina’s Lost Landmarks series. Read other posts in the series:
See also Katrina Survivors series:
- Katrina Survivors: Beauvoir
- Katrina Survivors: Randolph School, Pass Christian
- Katrina Survivors: Charnley Houses(s), Ocean Springs
- Katrina Survivors: Regular People Saving Their History