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Abandoned Places: Vose School

Built to educate the children of Alcoa's earliest workers, this little white schoolhouse now stands as one of the oldest buildings in the city.

ALCOA, Tenn. — The Babcock Lumber and Land Company started building the Vose School in Alcoa, Tennessee in 1916 to provide a place to educate the workers’ kids.

Named after the mother of C.L. Babcock, Alcoa's first mayor, the school officially opened in 1918 with four rooms and four teachers for eight grades and a nearby house serving as a classroom for first and second-grade students. Rooms on one side of the school were separated by a folding partition that could be pushed back for assemblies. 

It was considered to be the most modern school in the county with electricity, indoor plumbing, drinking fountains and furnace heat for the entire building. 

FULL SERIES: Explore Tennessee's Abandoned Places

“You look at it today and you think, ‘Well, it doesn't look like anything real special, other than the memories that are here,’ but yeah, at the time, it was considered to be a very up to date and progressive building for education,” said David Duggan, a circuit judge and Alcoa's city historian.

Vose School joined the Alcoa school system when the city was incorporated in 1919.

Credit: David Duggan
Class photo in front of Vose School in Alcoa, Tennessee

In 1921, the school was overcrowded so the eighth-grade class was moved to the Bassel School (originally the Aluminum Company of America School). At the start of the spring 1922 semester, students were moved to the newly opened and larger Springbrook School, closing Vose for more than a decade.

Even without students in the classrooms, the building was still used as the gym for Alcoa High School’s home basketball games during the 1925-1926 season. A school newspaper article from the time said the makeshift arena drew complaints as the low ceilings interfered with baskets and there were no places for fans to sit.

Duggan said the school was also used as a training school for unemployed adults during the Great Depression in 1933.

Then, in 1936, Springbrook became overcrowded so Vose was reopened with two teachers overseeing 75 students. Classes remained in session until 1939 when the new Alcoa High School was built, closing Vose for a second time.

The district continued to grow, and Vose School opened once again in 1947 to relieve more overcrowding at Springbrook.

Though he never attended Vose, Duggan remembers playing on the swings and merry-go-round with friends.

Students filled the classrooms until 1964 when classes were dismissed for good. It was used as an educational center for people with disabilities and a Department of Safety driver's license center for a time before being left abandoned for years.

Crisp white paint began to peel away. Rain-soaked ceilings gave way and littered the floors with drywall and insulation. Windows bore the brunt of break-in attempts. Decades-old appliances, discarded crafts and bits of trash scattered in the rooms created an odd timeline of the building’s use.

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Duggan said stories from the school are scarce, despite being part of Alcoa for more than a century. 

“We have very little, and we've had newspaper articles asking for photographs. We've even had full-page ads, but folks just haven't been forthcoming with pictures,” he said. “We really have very few pictures of Vose School when it was in operation. We have none made inside the school and very few that are of poor quality on the exterior, but it's been sort of a mystery.”

Nevertheless, the city worked with the East Tennessee Development District to add Vose School to the National Register of Historic Places in July 2017.

“That's kind of where things started to get put in motion to really start to focus on let's put resources and start to work in some opportunities for a reuse project because we have wanted to see the building protected and not necessarily removed,” said Jeremy Pearson, planning director for the City of Alcoa.

The city put out a request for proposals for Vose in 2020 and only received one submission. Dissatisfied with the initial result, officials put out another request and received six submissions by the end of the year. 

Some, like Duggan, wanted to see it turned into a community center or archive office. Others proposed converting it into residential spaces.

Alcoa awarded Vose School to Knoxville-based Reagan Design and Construction to turn the school into loft-style apartments with Johnson Architecture as the architects.

Credit: Johnson Architecture
Plans for Vose School Apartments

“They had experience in historic preservation, and so they will be preserving elements of this building to make it an attractive place for someone to want to live in,” Pearson said. “It gives another housing opportunity in this neighborhood too.”

Officials hope to turn over the school to the developers in 2022 once plans are finalized.

After decades of empty halls, the little white schoolhouse, originally built to educate some of Alcoa’s earliest residents, could soon serve the community again.

Reporter’s note: Though many of these buildings are unused and empty, they sit on private property that is still actively used in some cases. Do NOT attempt to unlawfully enter any of these places without permission. Many of them are structurally unsound and pose potential health hazards, like asbestos and lead paint. WBIR contacted all owners and obtained permission prior to visiting.

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