Foundation working to breathe new life into WWI-era school building in Sheffield

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SHEFFIELD, Ala. — On the outskirts of Sheffield near Spring Creek, you’ll find Village Number 1, named for the United States Nitrate Plant Number 1 built during the First World War.

Employees who worked in the plant lived in the homes throughout the Liberty Bell-shaped village, and their children would attend the Village 1 School located near its center.

Sky 19 view of Village No. 1 showing the Liberty Bell-shaped layout of the neighborhood with the school in the top center.

When WWI ended, the plant closed and workers for different industries, like the Tennessee Valley Authority, would begin living in the village.

In 1949, TVA gave the village to the City of Sheffield and the school would be included in the Sheffield city school system until it was closed permanently and abandoned in the mid-1990s.

Now, more than two decades later, nonprofit organization The Village School Foundation wants to restore the school building and preserve its history.

“We’re lucky here the fact that it was just so well preserved,” Executive Director Greg Harrison said. “And prior to that, they did very little remodeling I guess you would say to it so it’s kind of similar to the neighborhood; stepping inside the Village School is almost like stepping inside 1918.”

Much of the school has many of its features from 1918, including one that parallels the present—automatic flushing toilets. The technology was installed to help mitigate the spread of the Spanish Flu more than a century ago.

“You press down on the seat—sit down on the seat, then it engages a piston here, and then when you stand up, the toilet flushes,” Harrison said. “They’re still functional, just like they were in 1918.”

Greg Harrison demonstrating how the 1918 automatic flushing toilet works.

Harrison along with Secretary Tom Friend are restoring many original features like doors and light sconces by hand.

“This is one of the exterior doors for the auditorium and we’re taking out the last few panels so we can straighten the door to match the opening better,” Friend said.

Tom Friend and Greg Harrison restoring school’s original auditorium door.

The list of repairs is extensive but as a nonprofit, the foundation is able to contract out some work through grant funding.

For other projects, the organization benefits from helping hands in the community. “Some of them, it’s only volunteers working on it and then we use money that was donated to buy the supplies, equipment, and stuff,” Friend said.

Harrison said the end goal is for the school to be repurposed as a multi-use facility.

“It will change the dynamic of the whole street,” he said. “It’s going to be a beautiful building instead of an old, abandoned building which a lot of people have been seeing off their front porches for 25 years.”

The Village 1 School, a building with decades of history, planned to one day be enjoyed by a new generation who will make even more.

The foundation has a GoFundMe and Facebook page for donations and more information about the school.

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