As we move into a new year, many of us can’t help but to think about old acquaintances and reflect on things past. A beloved friend I’ll never forget was Hugh Morson High School.
In 1923 the Raleigh school board hired Atlanta architect C. Gadsden Sayre to design four modern school buildings. These were Hugh Morson High School near Moore Square, Washington High School for African-Americans on the southern extension of Fayetteville St., Wiley Elementary School on Saint Mary’s St. and Thompson Elementary School on Hargett St. The high school was named after long-time Raleigh educator Hugh Morson. He had run the Raleigh Male Academy during the late 19th century, and became the first principal of Raleigh High School when it opened on W. Morgan St. in 1908.
Beautifully designed in the Jacobethan style of architecture (aka Collegiate Gothic) popular for school buildings of the time, Hugh Morson High School sat impressively in the center of the block bounded by Hargett, Person, Morgan, and Bloodworth streets. It was delightfully embellished with limestone and terra cotta ornamentation, and was a proud showcase for the city of Raleigh.
This is how Hugh Morson appeared in 1934; from a yearbook of that same year. (Photo courtesy Vicky Vernon)
I attended Hugh Morson in its final years, 1963-1965. It had been demoted to junior high school status in 1955. I was a student there when Kennedy was assassinated and during the time school segregation ended in Raleigh (we had a single African-American in the entire student body in 1965). And Morson was where I got into my first teenage fistfight, and, sadly, lost a good friend because of it.
Over Christmas break in 1965 we 9th graders were transferred to the new Aycock Junior High, and old Hugh Morson closed forever. The building was subsequently demolished during the spring and summer of 1966. Within a couple years the Terry Sanford Federal Building was built on the site.
Recollections and Recording the History of a Long-Lost Raleigh Landmark
Although I was only 14 at the time, I had fallen in love with the old building during my two and a half year tenure there. After I learned of its imminent demise, I felt compelled to chronicle its destruction. Over the course of the next few months I visited the site on weekends whenever I could get downtown, and took these photos with my trusty Kodak Instamatic camera. Ultimately, I took 32 photos, most of which I have published here. I remember the building’s demolition as if it were yesterday.
To our Goodnight Raleigh readers, then, I present my photo narrative of the last days of Hugh Morson High School.
Exterior stairwells were located at each of the four corners of the building. When it rained, the water would pour through the open portals. There were two lion’s head gargoyles built into each stairwell that drained the water out. Herr Howard taught us 9th grade German in the classroom seen to the right of the ground floor portal.
This photo of Hugh Morson High School was taken in early March, 1966, just after demolition began. The six large humanoid gargoyles that graced the facade can be clearly seen above the third floor. I distinctly remember their ominous faces staring down at me as I would enter the massive front door archway.
This is another view of the front of Hugh Morson, taken in early March, 1966.
By mid-March the imposing main facade had been heavily battered.
Mrs. Oswald taught us 7th grade math in the classroom seen on the far right first floor in this view.
This is how it looked a few weeks later. After I took this shot, I began to feel brave enough to enter the building itself. I explored wherever demolition debris did not hinder my path. I tried taking photos inside, but without adequate light and no flash, sadly, nothing came of the attempt other than woefully underexposed negatives.
An enormous crane was brought in to do the dirty work of demolition. A giant weight hung from a cable attached to end of it. The photo below, taken probably in late June, 1966, shows that crane.
My heart was broken to see my beloved school in this condition. Even after all this time, it still breaks my heart today.
On the fourth floor was the band room, as we called it. Music and art were also taught here. The photo above was probably taken in late March or early April, 1966. By now, at this stage of demo, only three gargoyles remained in position– the others lay strewn about the debris on the ground below.
I was in Miss Perkins’ 7th period music class in this room on November 22, 1963 when our principal, Mr. Proctor announced over the PA system that President Kennedy had been shot.
Demo progresses on the southwest stairwell. You can see the lion’s heads water drains above the first and second floor portals.
There was no fence surrounding the demolition site (nor at any other demo site I explored in Raleigh back then), so access was unencumbered. I remember one Saturday in the later stages of demo as I was rummaging around, I saw several battered gargoyles lying about the grounds. Hmm, I thought– why not!
I managed to snag one of the lion’s heads. I have not seen it since I left home for college, and, sadly, I have no idea what ever became of this artifact. I wish I’d had the forethought back then to collect more.
By mid-April, the southwest stairwell was barely recognizable.
This is the northeast corner about mid-May. Around this time I began to refer to the hulking ruin as ‘Berlin — 1945.’
More of ‘Berlin’ — this shows the west side of the building.
This is a view of the rear of the building, probably in mid-April. Behind the enormous arched windows was the yellow-tiled gymnasium.
Inside the gym.
The large cleared area seen here was the cafeteria.
By mid-June, or so, the back of the school was gone.
Only the imposing furnace room chimney stack remained for a little while longer.
Nearing the final days of Hugh Morson High School — The imposing battering crane can be seen at the right, amid the rubble.
This is the last photo I ever took of Hugh Morson with my trusty Kodak Instamatic camera. By the time I was able to revisit the site a couple weeks later, every trace of the building was gone.
Now, flash forward 45 years —
Nothing remains of Hugh Morson High School today except memories — and photographs. I had always thought nothing had been salvaged from the wreckage, except maybe my now long-lost lion’s head water spout. I’m certain even all that brick was hauled unceremoniously to the dump. Happily, though, years later, two of the humanoid gargoyles resurfaced, and were enshrined in 1978 in a monument to the fabled school at the Morgan-Person St., New Bern Ave. intersection, across from the federal building.