Saving Mobile's Historic Barton Academy

Feb 24, 2013

  Government Street in Mobile is a bustling center of activity—kind of like what you’d see in a lot of big U.S. cities. The only thing that might seem out of place is the school. But that’s where Barton Academy, the first public school in Alabama, was built back in the late 1830s. Jerry Curran attended Barton during World War 2.

“I rode my bicycle to Barton Academy to be honest with you I see bicycles around but I wouldn’t want a kid to ride a bicycle down Government Street or Conti Street or any of them today,” says Curran. “So it was sleepy I guess you could say.”

There was a time when all white kids from Mobile County passed through Barton’s halls for middle school. Many of them grew up to be prominent residents in the area; lawyers, clergymen, business owners and even a Governor or two. “You know there’s Don, Don the Governor. Voted “Most Friendly” in 1961…”

Linda Grill points out some as she goes through her old yearbooks from when she attended in the 60’s. The “Don” she’s referring to is Don Siegelman, former Governor of Alabama. Grill is a retired teacher, who lives just a few blocks from Barton. Today her old school looks a little bit different than when she went there.

“Well it looks bad,” says Grill. “So it’s very sad to drive by there and watch that beautiful piece of architecture looking kind of shabby right now.”

Jaime Betbeze is president of the Barton Academy Foundation which is leading an effort to save the historical building which sits right along Government Street in Mobile. For the greater part of 150 years Barton has always had a tenant until the school board’s central office moved to a larger campus and now…

“Barton Academy has been vacant for about five years,” says Betbeze. “So a group of preservation minded individuals have put together a group of community leaders to help the school system come up with a way to renovate the building and put it to an appropriate use.”

The school board and the preservation minded group have determined that appropriate use to be another school. But Betbeze says not just any school, a world studies school that caters to the new Mobile.

“It would be a school that would focus on foreign languages and world cultures and with all of the international corporations and businesses that are coming to Mobile and setting up shop here we recognize that there is a great need for training students to be able to enter that work force.”

Estimates run around $15 million to build the one-of-a-kind World Studies school at Barton. Hurricane damage and many failed efforts to restore Barton placed the school on a list of endangered historical sites. The school board has set aside $3.5 million of a recent construction bond to stabilize Barton. But, in a time where dollars are scarce, some have expressed concern about sinking money into a building no one is using.

“Today we have 300 million dollars’ worth of facility needs,” says Superintendent Martha Peek. “So you look at schools that have children in them today and that have facility needs that have been there for a while so certainly everybody looks at their needs as being the greatest.”

Peek says the money not only serves as a short term fix, but also as a means to leverage greater investment later.

“I think that when you look at a project, that full range could be about ten-fifteen million dollars for the whole complex to make it a school facility that’s a little bit daunting. But I think that when you begin chipping away at it, and you stabilize the outside, then you can do some viable planning of what you can do to the outside.” 

  The money only promises a start to the project, not necessarily an end. The school can’t move forward without outside investment, and Mobile has seen many of its historic buildings disappear. Betbeze feels that Barton is at least assured a more promising future.

“I think the vast majority of the community that we’ve seen the outpouring of support for this project recognizes that they don’t want another parking lot in the middle of downtown Mobile. They want to see this building preserved and put to good use.”

Now a school that never saw its hall’s integrated may have a chance to be a leader in combining and promoting the world’s culture.