Preservation NC to take over Dunbar property after prior project falls through

By Sharon Myers, The Dispatch

LEXINGTON – The longtime saga of Dunbar High School has added another chapter after a proposed project to convert the building into apartments for senior citizens has fallen through.

The property, which served as the only high school for African Americans prior to integration in the 1960s, is being donated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte to Preservation North Carolina.

“It’s about time,” said Charles Owens, president of the Dunbar Preservation Society.

Owens, who has been at the forefront of the fight to have Dunbar High School recognized (and protected) as a historically significant building in Lexington, said he is pleased that there has finally been movement in the cause but is frustrated with the time it has taken.

“I am upset we have wasted 15 years of it not being used, and it getting … (rundown),” he said. “It should be a protected property, and it should continue to be maintained and used as a community center.”

Built in 1951 on Smith Avenue, Dunbar High School served as the only high school for the Black community in Lexington before the end of segregation. It was then used as an elementary school and renamed Charles England Elementary School until a new school was built on Cornelia Street in 2007.

The old school was closed in 2008, and the property reverted to its former name and was put up for sale by Lexington City Schools. It was purchased by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte in 2009, which originally planned on renovating the property.

Over the years, for one reason or another, the school has been left unoccupied, and no repairs or renovations have been completed.

In 2021, the diocese agreed to sell the property to Shelter Investments Development Corp., which submitted plans for turning the old school into apartments for senior citizens.

But SIDC was unable to secure necessary federal housing tax credits for the project, and the diocese retained ownership.

In 2022, the diocese decided to donate the 10-acre property to the non-profit Preservation North Carolina. They are in the process of finalizing the agreement, said Anthony Morlando, director of properties and real estate for the diocese.

“This site is a unique asset with tons of potential for the community, so we’re looking forward to see what Preservation North Carolina can achieve,” he said. “We believe they have access to a broader array of resources that will be critical to development of the site, and we’re glad to play a small part of preserving the history and heritage of Dunbar School.”

Founded in 1939, Preservation North Carolina is the state’s only private nonprofit historic preservation organization. Its mission is to protect and promote buildings, landscapes and sites important to the heritage of North Carolina.

Cathleen Turner, regional director of Preservation North Carolina’s Piedmont office, said the organization will begin preliminary plans to determine the costs associated with rehabilitation of the property.

“We’re grateful for the diocese’s generosity and continued commitment to preservation, and we’re thrilled to have a new opportunity for the renovation of the Dunbar School for the benefit of the community,” Turner said. “We’re already talking with parties who have the interest and know-how to renovate historic buildings. We’ll be working as quickly as possible to create an achievable development plan that is sensitive and appropriate.”

Preservation NC has also contracted with the city of Lexington to maintain the school’s  ballfield and playground as a community park.

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