Howard Middle School Building Stands Ready for Its Second Century

Posted By: Jere Smith Education, Membership,

After over a year of planning and design and a year and a half of construction starting in early 2019 and through rain, snow, heat, cold, a pandemic and now a six-month shut-down on in person learning the newly renovated and expanded Howard Middle School facility stands out and ready to start a second century as a place to educate Atlanta’s children.

The David T. Howard school building first opened in 1924 as an elementary school was constructed on a 7.5 acre site in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward neighborhood as designed by Atlanta architect Arthur Neal Robinson. Originally an elementary school, named the Storrs and Houston School for the original adjacent streets, the facility was soon renamed after David T. Howard, a successful and revered Atlanta businessman, philanthropist and supporter of education who donated the land to the school district.

Entering the original building you are soon enveloped with a feel for the history of the place. While the two prominent stair-towers on the front of the building have been repaired enough to make them safe and usable, you can still see evidence of wear in the almost hundred year old stairs from the thousands and thousands of footsteps from a who’s who of Atlanta and civil rights history. Attended by Martin Luther King, Jr. from 1936 to 1940, other notable Howard alumni include NBA star Walt Frazier, real estate developer Herman Russell, former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, presidential advisor Vernon Jordan many others. In the quiet of today’s almost empty building it is easy to imagine the sounds and echoes of those youngsters’ footsteps on their daily trips up and down the stairways in the old four story building that had no elevator at the time.

The now finished project has retained its classic character, stands strong and doesn’t shy away from its history. The well-worn terrazzo floors are solid and while now cleaned and polished show their age and use with numerous cracks and patches of varying colors. Multiple shades of bricks from a patch work of repairs remain on the exterior skin and are tell-tale signs of age, damage and the result of various building program and additions over the years.

Howard High School closed at the end of the 1976 school year due to declining enrollment in the area and around the city. The building sat dormant for a while before beginning a 40 year career providing space for various administrative functions in the school district including a home for Nutrition, JROTC, Safety & Security, Student Records, Archives and the Capital Improvement Program management team. Finally in 2006 the last school system tenant moved out leaving the building empty again. By that time things in the city were changing again with the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood becoming an ever more popular place to live and work.

As buildings do when left empty, it soon began to deteriorate and over time started to become an attractive nuisance. There were limited discussions over possible demolition but those talks never got any traction as the district understood the historic and cultural value of the building and continued to investigate sustainable uses such as a permanent administrative site, a traditional or charter school site and even redevelopment as affordable housing for teachers. The school fields continued to be a gathering place in the neighborhood, hosting youth soccer leagues year after year. Finally in 2016 with the pressure from sustained student growth in the Grady High School cluster and the need for more space in the zone, the decision was made to create a new Howard Middle School.

The challenge facing the facilities team was to determine just how to put this early twentieth century school back in shape for modern education. The work began almost immediately with the team of Stevens & Wilkinson in cooperation with Lord Aeck & Sargent Architects being selected for the planning and design efforts. Early due diligence studies indicated that despite showing its age and wear the structure and brick skin could be salvaged, repaired and put back to use.

A decision was made that any additions would have a modern appearance and would not compete but would seek to complement the historic building. While remaining sympathetic to the history of the building the renovations would have to bring the building into the twenty-first century. The decision to rehabilitate acknowledged the need to alter or add to the historic property to meet the continuing and changing needs of today while retaining the property’s historic character.

Sketches for an almost forgotten proposed Auditorium addition, prepared by Robinson, dated September 25, 1922 were found in the district’s archives. The building was obviously not constructed at the time of the original build and the school was left with a relatively plain brick façade and no obvious front door for over ninety years. A decision was made to incorporate the proposed vintage addition into the new plans as the school’s new main office area and now give the building its signature appearance and a true front door on John Wesley Dobbs Avenue.

A project design committee was assembled, lead by APS facilities staff and made up of school staff, community members, alumni and Board members, provided feedback to the architects. Once the basic program and needs were defined a construction manager, Parrish Construction Group was selected to work with the team in completing the design and to construct the project. After roughly a year of discussions, design charrettes, drawing production, city permitting and state department of education reviews, construction was ready to begin.

The new school is designed to accommodate 1,375 students in 55 classrooms. The additions house an auditorium and performing arts spaces, a kitchen and cafeteria, classrooms and laboratories, media center and the central administration area. The historic 1924 classroom building and 1937 gymnasium were renovated and a 1967 addition demolished. The historic renovation area totaled 113,943 sf and the additions 94,179 sf for a total new facility of 208,122 sf. A school bus yellow media center was added and is the highlight of the new enclosed open-air courtyard. A true twenty-first century learning environment was created with collaborative learning spaces, flexible laboratories and robust technology with the latest network systems and classroom equipment.

Balancing the old and the new, one classroom was selected and partially restored to near the way it likely appeared when the school opened in 1920s Atlanta. Some of the original hardwood floors, cabinets and steam radiators were refinished and reinstalled, the real chalk boards were repaired and refinished, vintage school house pendant lights were used and the hall-way transomwindows once used for ventilation in the non-air-conditioned days were retained.

A unique museum and visitor’s center space to showcase the history of Howard was built adjacent to the Media Center. The space will be operated in partnership and cooperation with the David T. Howard Alumni Association and will be outfitted with interactive multi-media technology to provide presentations for visitors on the history of the neighborhood, the school and the alumni. Meeting and lecture space is available for small groups and display cases are available for rotating collections of school artifacts and memorabilia. Original casework was removed, refinished and has been re-installed in the museum area and visitor seating has been installed that was fashioned from trees removed for the recent building additions.

The $52.0 million project budget included the design, testing, construction ($46.0 million) and furnishings. The new building is a blend of business in the front and innovation in the back with the retention, renovation and additions to the classic Romanesque brick structure on the northern side of the site and the construction of sleek modern metal and glass additions to the south.

Bringing a nearly hundred year old building back on-line and preparing it for twenty-first century service while almost doubling its size with additions is logistically easier done in the conference room and design studio than on the construction site. The district was clear communicating its goal to maintain as much of the historic character of the building as possible and the design team took great care to do so. There was extensive lead paint and asbestos abatement to be completed along the way, requiring rework or replacement for much of the old plaster. A system of thousands of helical brick ties was designed and were installed to anchor the old and new brick to the vintage clay tile back-up walls. Care had to be taken during construction of the new buildings in avoiding the old foundations to prevent adding new loads to the existing structure. The use of a variable refrigerant flow (VRF) HVAC system reduced the need for large ductwork and helped maintain ceiling heights, tall windows and light in the historic classroom building. Excavation on site uncovered patches of long-ago buried debris from demolished buildings taken down to make way for the original school that had to be removed and the soil remediated before new construction could begin.

So far the reception to the new Howard has been overwhelmingly positive. Now that the dust has settled, the paint has dried, the furniture has been put in place it is clear that the new Howard Middle School building stands ready as a center piece of the revitalized neighborhood and a place to educate Atlanta’s children for another hundred years.


Jere Smith

© 2021

Jere Smith is an architect and Atlanta native. A graduate of Southern Polytechnic State University and Clemson University, he is currently the Director of Capital Improvements for the Atlanta Public Schools. For more information he can be reached at