Former Wake school remains special

For decades, children in eastern Wake County learned to read and write in the old Wakelon School, a handsome brick building with an octagonal domed tower that was built 100 years ago between the villages of Wakefield and Zebulon.

The last of the students left in the 1980s, when the pharmaceutical company Glaxo bought the school and turned it into offices. But the old school still holds a special place in people's hearts.

"That building is just an icon for the town," said Ann Matheny, a 1964 graduate of Wakelon High School.

Now the school building has been returned to public use as Zebulon's town hall. Several town departments moved in earlier this winter, and an open house Saturday will give residents a chance to tour the building.

Wakelon is the latest old school building in the Triangle to be put to a new public use. In Raleigh, Clayton and Garner, among others, schools built before World War II have become senior housing, community centers and theaters.

Zebulon bought Wakelon from GlaxoSmithKline after voters agreed in 2007 to issue $5 million in bonds to buy and renovate the building and another 1950s school building next door. The newer building now houses the police department.

Old Wakelon almost didn't make it this far. In the early 1970s, a few years after school integration turned the whites-only Wakelon High into the integrated Zebulon Elementary, the county talked of tearing it down.

Amid the outcry that followed, a group of residents petitioned to have the school put on the National Register of Historic Places, saying combination of "Italianate and Neo-Classical styles" in stone and red and tan brick made it a "building of distinctive character." The application was approved in 1976.

By then, the big, open, wooden stairway under the dome had been replaced by enclosed concrete stairs. Glaxo later gutted the building, removing plaster walls and wood molding as it turned classrooms into office suites.

New look inside

The town hall that people will see Saturday looks much like Wakelon always has on the outside, but feels like a modern office building inside. The historical touches are those the architects could find in the building's bones -- the brick walls and beams hidden beneath the walls and ceilings, said architect Fred Belledin, part of the team at Raleigh's Clearscapes that designed the renovation.

The designers created a new open stairway by ripping out two rooms and exposing brick walls that mark the transition between the original 1909 building and an addition built later. To add height to the second-floor town council chamber, they tore out the ceiling, exposing wood beams built to hold a heavy slate roof.

"We tend to do a lot of work on old buildings, and we're always rooting around in attics and basements to see what opportunities they present," Belledin said.

The 20,000-square-foot building is more than the town needs now. Town Manager Rick Hardin acknowledges the empty desks and cubicles. "We have room for growth," he said.

There's no reason to think that growth won't come. Zebulon's population, estimated at nearly 5,000 in 2007, is more than twice what it was when the school closed, and 1,600 more house lots have been approved, Hardin said.

Plaza dedication

Saturday also will mark the dedication of a brick plaza and fountain in front of the town hall. The plaza was built by Friends of Wakelon, a group of graduates and others that has also been collecting photos, yearbooks, trophies and other memorabilia to display in the building's lobby. The display includes a photo of the 1933 first-grade class, as well as Mary Helen Clark's framed Wakelon High School diploma from 1927 bearing the slogan, "No Victory without Labor."