By Robin S. Lattimore
Foothills Magazine of The Charlotte Observer, Jan 5,
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photographs, newspapers, historical documents, maps, blueprints and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 contgact Davyd Ford Hood, a National Register
consultant and architectural historial from Vale, who had prepared
the application for the R-S Cenral nomination and who also submitte
the application for trhe 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 Rutherfod
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.”
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
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 effor 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 growning 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 contructed,” White
said. “The most remarkable thing about Cliffside School is that
it has surviced 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
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.