Arts Council leases Bertie Rouse School building to use as cultural and arts center

Published 1:15 am Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Greater Picayune Arts Council has leased from the Picayune school board one of the most historic buildings in Picayune, the Bertie Rouse School building at East Fifth Street and North Haugh Avenue

GPAC plans to refurbish the structure and turn it into a cultural and arts center for the Picayune area.

The lease was contingent upon GPAC getting a grant.

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On Friday, Joe Navoy said that the Arts Council had landed a $50,000 grant from the Mississippi Coast Community Foundation.

“The lease is now in effect,” he said.

Navoy, chairman of the GPAC building committee, said that solving a termite problem and removing water from beneath the building are underway, and that he plans to meet with an architect on the project on Jan. 5.

It won’t be easy and will take a long time to refurbish the structure, GPAC officials were told on Thursday during a tour of the old school and conference with a representative of U.S. Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).

Preliminary estimates on rehabilitating the structure, which is also known as the East Side School, run to more than $1 million, said Carolyn Terry, GPAC chairman.

Although historical information on the structure and site is sketchy, some local historians believe the site was the location of Picayune’s first school and that portions of that first school might have been incorporated into later additions and alterations of the current structure.

The building still retains its original heart-pine flooring, although it needs to be refurbished.

A group of GPAC officers, along with Jennifer Biggy Schmidt, Wicker’s Southern regional director, toured the old school on Thursday afternoon and then the group had a conference at the train depot.

The building, which is a state historical landmark and cannot be torn down, is owned by the Picayune school district, but district officials told GPAC officials that they would lease the structure to the organization and would match initial funding. The building is currently vacant.

The school board received special funding for repair of the school from the government after Katrina.

The school district put a new roof on the structure after Katrina to protect it, but Terry said that the building would have slowly deteriorated over the years if not used.

Still, it will be a daunting task to restore the old school.

Officials said on Thursday they are determined to place the structure back into pristine condition, although it may take a long time to do so. They have to raise a lot of money and garner a lot of help from the community.

The vision that GPAC officials have for the facility includes housing centers for arts education, literary organizations, the performing arts, visual and literary arts and crafts.

Right now, officials say, Picayune On Stage theatre group, the Pearl River County Arts League, Picayune Writers’s Group, the community band and chorus, the historical society and other organizations need space for offices and a place to perform and show their art.

Some of the groups, including GPAC, used the cultural center at Mississippi Mall, which was recently damaged by a fire. They now have no permanent place to meet.

Bertie Rouse has an auditorium and stage inside the structure.

Said Navoy, “At this time, GPAC does not even have its own meeting room, since our last one was destroyed by fire. All of the various members of GPAC have no space of their own to serve as a studio in which to teach and practice their various arts and crafts.” Navoy is a retired physician.

There is a plaque inside the school that indicates that prior to 1907 there probably was another building there, since the plaque is headed “Alterations and additions.”

Under the heading are listed two dates: 1907 and 1928.

The metal plaque reads, “Alterations and additions. School Building. Aldermen 1907 M.A. Tate, H.D. Thames, C.E. Bilbo, E.J. Stockstill, J.B. Whitfield, J.L. Megehee Mayor. 1928 aldermen Edw. Rolands, E.M. Walker, L.N. Formby, A.A. Mitchell, N.B. Lane. Trustees (school board members) C. McDonald, J.B. Calvin, L.O. Crosby, W.H. Farrell, S.G. Thigpen. T.K. Boggan, Supt., schools, N.W. Overstreet architect, A.M. Tisdale, Builder.”

The plaque would indicate that there was a building there prior to 1907 and that there were additions and alterations commemorated by the plaque.

L.O. Crosby was, of course, L.O. Senior, whose timber operations established Picayune as a small city. The plaque was installed in the school only three years after Picayune’s incorporation by an act of the State Legislature as a village in 1904.

C. McDonald was Claiborne McDonald, who founded McDonald Funeral Home, and of course S.G. Thigpen was the senior, affectionately later known as Grandpa Thigpen, founder of Thigpen Hardware, Thigpen Insurance, Thigpen Realty and one of the founders of the First National Bank.

Grandpa Thigpen wrote seven books on local history.

Local historian and editor of “The Historical Reporter of Pearl River County,” Mark Clinton Davis, has done the most recent and in-depth research on the matter and he says that it is difficult to sort out what actually happened on the site, but added his research showed that the site is probably the place where Picayune’s first school and high school were established and operated.

His research was included in the September 2008 “Historical Reporter,” along with pictures and memorabilia from the early school era at the site.

A commencement invitation for April 20, 1917, shows 12 students graduated from high school there, probably walking across the very same stage that still remains inside the school.

They were: Hubert Edward Cooper, Robert Rufus Davis, Isaac Hunt Jenkins, Vera Belle Megehee, Hugh Emile Mitchell, valedictorian Leo Charles Puyper, Julia Valenteene Russ, Charley Vivian Scott, August Day Stockstill, Letia Rusha Terrell, Essie Thelma Thornhill and Penoila Maye Williams.

There were 11 students in the class of 1914: Valedictorian Ollie Laird, Irene Megehee, Bertha Parent, Tom Pearson, William Puyper, Myrtle Simmons, Rosa Smith, Lorena Tate, Minnie Tate, Opal Thornhill and Ruby Thornhill.

The school building for most of its career has been operated as East Side Elementary School, and thousands of Picayune students living on the east side of the railroad tracks had their first educational experience at the school.

Picayune at one time only had two elementary schools, West Side and East Side. Students living on the west side of the tracks went to West Side and on the east side to East Side Elementary. East Side later became known as Bertie Rouse, named after a dedicated, influential teacher who worked in the system.