Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
May 31, 2017
What do you do with an old schoolhouse that saw its last students in 1926? Fernandina’s School House No. 1 at 914 Atlantic Avenue, a wood-framed edifice with brick veneer, was built in 1886. A south wing was added between 1903-1910. The school bell tower reconstruction was completed in the mid-1980’s. But the importance of the building to the architectural fabric of the 55-block nationally registered Historic District has been largely lost over time as a variety of owners have tried to find a modern use for the building.
As passersby will attest, the old schoolhouse has somewhat fallen into disrepair. The once impressive building, designed by noted architect Robert Sands Schuyler, looks like a poor relation of other Schuyler edifices in the Fernandina Beach Historic District like St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, the Fairbanks House, and the Tabby House. A succession of recent owners divided the 7,962 sq. ft. of interior space into offices. Other than necessary maintenance—like replacing the roof after Hurricane Matthew blew through it—the exterior of the building has gradually but surely deteriorated. Crumbling masonry, water damage, and little in the way of landscaping have diminished this significant building within the downtown Historic District.
But all that is about to change.
Plans are underway to restore and update the building with the help of federal, state and local tax credits and repurpose it once more. The soon-to-be new owners—Amelia Schoolhouse Inn, LLC–have retained local architect Jose Miranda to design the transformation.
Miranda, who has been authorized to speak for the project, explained that plans call for a 17-room boutique hotel with a lobby bar (tentatively called “The Principal’s Office”). An interior elevator will be added, but plans call for original brick and wood window restoration along with retaining the central staircase and hardwood floors.
There will be 21 on-site parking spaces, although only 17 are required. A garden courtyard will be landscaped on the east side of the building. The adjacent “Beauty Salon” building to the south will be converted for use as Housekeeping/Storage and its parking lot will belong to the hotel. The schoolhouse’s existing parking lot on the west side will be reduced in size to allow for addition of a pool and a landscaped courtyard.
Closing on the sale of the property is set for July 31, 2017. The new owners have opened other boutique hotels around the country. In this case, they will be seeking Historic Preservation Tax Incentives–up to 20% of qualified renovation expenses.
Miranda said that the project will go before the city’s Historic District Council for approval this summer. Construction drawings should be completed in September, and he looks toward permitting in October. If all goes as planned, construction will begin in November and be completed in June 2018.
Next year, assuming all goes well, people will be able to sleep in school and visit the Principal’s Office for fun!
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.