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Tuskegee architecture and construction students are helping to renovate the historic Drakeford House, which was built in the 1890s in the late Victorian era.

Tuskegee University architecture and construction science and management students are simultaneously learning historic preservation skills and helping to rehabilitate their local community. In what aims to be one of the first projects of the university’s new historic preservation program, students in the Robert Taylor School of Architecture and Construction Science and Management (TSACS) are taking part in renovating the Drakeford House, one of eight historic homes along East Water Street and North Main Street on the north side of the city of Tuskegee.

TSACS faculty and students will use both the Drakeford House and the Willcox E Trades Building on campus as learning laboratories for observing and participating in preservation training as both structures undergo renovation. The school’s long-term goal is to develop Centers for Workforce Development and Historic Preservation to advance the craft training skills of its students and the Tuskegee community at large, according to Carla Jackson Bell, TSACS dean and professor of architecture. The center would help make Tuskegee a leader among Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in offering historic preservation skills through its undergraduate, research, and outreach programs. It would also preserve Booker T. Washington’s mission of “learning to do by doing” and his belief that by requiring students to build and restore their own buildings, they would feel a degree of ownership in their community. As early as 1892, Washington originally developed vocational training programs as part of the institute that became what is now Tuskegee University, located in Macon County, Alabama.

“Macon County is considered within the Black Belt of the South and has had a majority-black population since before the American Civil War,” Bell says. “Tuskegee housing is split between students on the campus and in the community. Many young adults from the county don’t have a place to go to acquire a skill so they can raise a family and stay in Tuskegee.”

Rebuilding community connections

In 2018, the owner of the Drakeford House, Michael Hicks, contacted Bell. Hicks, a physician who lives in Michigan but is originally from Tuskegee, wanted to know whether architecture students could develop a proposal for what to do with the Drakeford. While Hicks never attended Tuskegee, his mother, brother, and nephew (who graduated this past spring) are all alumni.

With oversight from Bell and Charner Rodgers, senior coordinator of industry relations and associate professor of construction science and management, third-year TSACS students took on the project. The Drakeford is in the Queen Anne–style from the late Victorian period of the 1890s, with a corner shingled turret, a gable roof, a porch curving around two sides, and a lawn ideal for landscaping. More recent additions include a screened second-story porch and a first-floor solarium. Because the house is a historic landmark—it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places Inventory in 1985—the students wanted to maintain the home’s interior and existing framework. They decided to draw up plans to turn the home into a bed and breakfast, as well as a wedding venue.

“What we want to do is bring the house back to the original glory that it had in the 1890s,” Bell says.

After the students submitted the plans to Hicks, he awarded the top three students a scholarship. He also called Bell again to say that he had funding to renovate the house and wanted to use the Drakeford as a lab for learning about historic preservation and restoration.

In what is now planned as a two-year project, TSACS students, as well as young adults from the community earning a trade certificate, will observe and assist contractors as they renovate the Drakeford. Because of liability concerns, students cannot work as laborers, but they will create architectural drawings and conduct historic preservation research. The certificate earners will do more hands-on tasks.

“With the funding from this grant, faculty are currently training our students to learn restoration and craft training skills to become citizen architects, builders, and community leaders who are able to design and build sustainable communities,” Bell says. “For the project, we’re not just including our students, we’re including the young adults in the community.”

TSACS will also collaborate with the Rebuild Tuskegee Foundation, the Hope Crew/National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to restore the Drakeford.

The renovations on the house and the Willcox E campus building are just the first of what Bell hopes will be many local preservation projects TSACS faculty and students will tackle. The city and the university have other buildings—from small frame houses to historic campus structures—that need attention. The plans for the Centers for Workforce Development and Historic Preservation to assist local residents in earning craft trade certificates, Bell says, are also directly connected to the diversity and inclusion that Tuskegee University’s president, Lily McNair, has made a priority and that involves truly collaborating with the city and the larger community.

“We have a lot of work around Tuskegee that people need experience for,” Bell says. “My vision first started with workforce development to have students and young adults in the community work together to learn a building trade. We still have issues of inclusion, and one thing we can do as an institution is to support and build our community.”

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