John S. Norris
During 1850-1856, with John S. Norris as architect and builder, Massie Common School House was constructed on historic Calhoun Square. The scale of the neighborhood is residential, with the exception of the massive Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church at the west side of the square. Massie’s three separate two-story structures occupy three house lots, making it compatible in scale with the surrounding residential structures.
A native of New York City, Mr. Norris also designed the local United States Custom House, the Abrahams Home, and the Mercer-Wilder and Green-Meldrim houses. Many other fine Savannah structures have been attributed to Norris or show his influence.
The Greek Revival Style
Massie Common School House is Greek Revival architecture at its simplest and best. The central portion of the present building is the original school and was the first of the buildings constructed. It has dimensions of 45 feet (frontage) by 70 feet deep on the lot. The structure has a strong plinth course of sandstone from the ground to the first floor level. The walls are built of Savannah gray brick, a popular basic masonry material of the period, and finished in stucco with deeply incised scoring at fairly large spacings to impart the feeling of massive stonework.
The front elevation is modeled to produce four equally spaced pilasters connected above the second story windows by low round arches. The facade features a classical pediment incorporating a scored stucco frieze. A belfry framed in heavy timbers is located on the ridge of the roof. The main entrance is a pair of large-scale wood doors, and the windows on either side are six over six rectangular double-hung wood. The windows on the second floor are similar, but have a gently curving head shape, following the curve of the modeled wall into which they are set. The original louvered wood window shutters are gone.
The main entry doors lead into a small foyer, flanked on either side by stairwells with gently curving stairs giving access to the second floor. The rails, spindles, and newel posts are mahogany. Doors from the stairwells also lead into a large assembly room on each floor. The plaster walls and ceiling are strongly defined by a raked plaster cornice.
The Building Grows
Plan configuration has been modified only slightly, this modification occurring at the rear of the central building on both floors where two original very small classrooms existed. The walls separating these rooms from the assembly rooms were moved northward to allow another window in each small classroom. Later, these windows were converted to doors, providing additional exits to the yards.
There is a small basement below the front portion of the ground floor, containing some components of an original furnace and ducted heating system.
In 1872 Massie’s two-room western annex was constructed by Mathew Hogan using specifications drawn up by John Hogg. In 1886 the eastern annex was built to correspond with the design of the 1872 addition.
The wings or annexes are smaller than the original building; but the modeling of the principal facades is identical, and the window arrangements and sizes are the same. These annexes do not have entrances from the street, but have access from the interior of the central original building by outdoor passageway connectors.
The three joined buildings are in excellent condition structurally, showing no movement in the exterior masonry walls and no significant cracking. The floor framing of heavy pine timbers and the roof structure, pine trusses, are also in excellent shape. The exterior stucco has lost the strong articulation of the original scoring, probably due to surface erosion and subsequent coats of paint. The original color of the building was a soft beige.
Brick masonry walls enclose the courtyards and separate the girls’ area from the boys’. The courtyards house the “suitable yard rooms,” the school’s restrooms, an original 1856 structure.
Massie Common School House was built at a total cost, including annexes, of $15,445.