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An independent, coed K-12 day school in Atlanta

A Riverbank Renaissance: Part One

A Riverbank Renaissance: Part One
Justin Abraham

For more than 60 years, Lovett has called its serene riverside campus “home.” Through the normal hustle and bustle of the school day—carpool, classes, and after-school activities—the Chattahoochee River flows steadily just beyond our athletic fields. This campus feature is uniquely Lovett, yet the School has not always been situated next to the river most Atlantans affectionately call the “Hooch.”

Over time, Lovett’s physical campus has grown (from a tiny home to a sprawling day school). It has moved (three times, in fact). And its buildings have evolved (the original Upper School, now Community Center, was the first building constructed). Though Lovett had far humbler origins, the importance of location—especially its connection to nature—and a devoted group of supporters have always been evident.


A Small Start for a Big Idea

Atlanta was home to several significant educational births in the early 20th century. In 1913, the Georgia Institute of Technology founded its Evening School of Commerce, which would later become Georgia State University (now the eighth-largest public university in the nation). Emory College relocated to Druid Hills in 1915, rechartering itself as Emory University. And in September 1916, a pioneer educator, Eva Edwards Lovett, began teaching ten first-grade children in her home in Atlanta. This school—Mrs. Lovett’s School for Children—showed such promise that it continued for a handful of years before Mrs. Lovett left Atlanta briefly in the early 1920s when her husband, Dr. William Cuyler Lovett, was relocated for a ministry position.

Just a couple of years later, she returned to the city “...with the purpose of developing here a school of this new type [of education] whose emphasis is on the needs and abilities of each child, the development of all his possibilities and on his adjustment to happy living with his fellows.” This countercultural philosophy—to focus on the child as an individual—immediately distinguished Mrs. Lovett from other contemporary educators.

Black and white photo of home

A graduate of Peabody College, Emory University, and Columbia University, Mrs. Lovett understood that academic institutions cannot rest on their laurels. To distinguish itself and provide students with the best learning experience possible, a school and its educators had to “keep in step with the constant changes occurring in the world” and had to “keep an appraising eye on itself and an alert eye on the times,” to avoid teaching using outworn methods and principles.

Her philosophy, and her emphasis on a vision of progressive education, where children learn by doing and not “the usual exclusive concern with textbook knowledge,” was revolutionary at the time. In fact, she was quoted in a local newspaper for a story about her desire to allow children to “wiggle” and learn in environments without the standard desk and chair.

To bring her vision to life, Mrs. Lovett founded her own school in 1926 at 32 Peachtree Place with just 20 young students in the first through third grades. By all accounts, the school was incredibly popular with both students and parents. With the addition of fourth grade a year later, and demand for fifth grade by 1930, a move to a larger dwelling was already necessary. Mrs. Lovett rented a home at 921 Myrtle Street in midtown Atlanta, where she educated students on the first and second floors, while she and her family resided on the third floor.

In less than ten years, enrollment had expanded to 85 students and the school had outgrown its stately abode on Myrtle Street. That measure of success—the confidence of parents in Mrs. Lovett’s leadership and whole child education—justified swift actions to meet the “definite need for this type of school” in Atlanta and the need to expand the school for future growth. The first-ever Board of Trustees, composed of hopeful parents and friends, convened in June 1936 and quickly raised $6,500 (approximately $136,000 in today’s market) to construct a country day school—the first of its kind in the region—at 1415 West Wesley Road.

Little Lovett

The wooded setting and 15 acres of land allowed teachers—Mrs. Lovett included—to utilize outdoor spaces as classrooms. To study nature “in nature’s own classroom,” she routinely led students into the surrounding woods to draw wildflowers, birds, and leaves. It’s a manner of teaching shared to this day by Lovett’s educators. On any given day, you’ll find students learning in gardens, around the pond, and in The Dell. In AP Environmental Science, Jim Crowley leads Upper School students across campus to research and document the box turtle population, which inhabits our forests, grounds, and bodies of water.

By the late 1950s, it became clear that in order to continue its growth and fulfill the demand for the education offered by Lovett, the School needed a larger space where improved facilities would provide better instruction, and where there would be ample space for sports, events, and other activities. It would also be a location where the School could consolidate and house all grades together. Due to Lovett’s exponential growth and its then-relationship with the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip following Mrs. Lovett’s retirement, students were taught at either “Little Lovett” on West Wesley, St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, Trinity Presbyterian Church, or the Cathedral of St. Philip.

The Board understood the pressing need for more space and quickly approved a motion in 1958 to acquire land from the John M. Slaton Estate. At a cost of $3,000 an acre, Lovett purchased 82 acres at the northeast corner of Paces Ferry Road and the Chattahoochee River to construct a new school campus.

And so, the Riverbank was born.

CITY’S LEADERS SUPPORT NEW CAMPUS

Eva Edwards Lovett at Campus Groundbreaking

Building a new school campus from scratch, even for a well-established institution, was no small feat. It took a group of city leaders banding together to fund the construction of a campus out of acres of wooded land. Fundraising efforts started with an aggressive campaign in the spring of 1959 to raise $1.25 million from “leaders in all walks of life in the City of Atlanta.” It was immediately successful—within months, ground was broken at 4075 Paces Ferry Road and community members anxiously awaited the fall of 1960 when the campus would officially open.

At the turn of the decade, a new era of Lovett began when 1,024 students in all grades except 12th grade arrived on the Paces Ferry Road campus. Three major buildings were constructed in time for the 1960 grand opening: the Lower School (housing first through seventh grades), the Middle School (for grades eight through eleven), and the administrative building, which included offices for staff, the Alston Memorial Chapel, dining room, and temporary library space.

Paces Ferry Road Campus

In order to have ample space for physical and outdoor education, Lovett purchased adjacent land in 1962 from Stuart Murray and the estate of Vasser Woolley for $250,000. The land allowed for the construction of outdoor athletic facilities, including a football practice field, a quarter-mile track, and a baseball and hockey field. The additional acreage also provided easier access to Interstate 75, which was being extended 2from West Paces Ferry Road to State Route 120 in Marietta in the early-to-mid 1960s.

By the mid 1960s, the Vasser Woolley Library was completed (and air conditioned!) and an athletics stadium was constructed along the riverbank. The 1970s and 1980s saw the opening of the Lordians House for the head of school and the Dorothy Floyd Library in the Lower School, as well as a campaign to construct a natatorium and additional classrooms in the Middle School.

GENEROSITY SPURS CAMPUS GROWTH

The generous support of Lovett’s community continued to propel the School forward, as a flurry of campus construction began in the 1990s and 2000s.

The Campaign for Lovett kicked off in 1993 with goals of constructing the Multi-Use Center and theater, Wallace Gymnasium, and the Hite Sports Medicine Center. Following the largest gift in Lovett’s history at the time, the Multi-Use Center was named in honor of Alan B. Fuqua ’69. The campaign also included funds to purchase a cloud forest in Ecuador, for the purpose of establishing Siempre Verde, a research and education center. Hundreds of Lions, as well as educators and students from schools across the country, have trekked to the reserve since its inception.

The School’s loyal supporters rallied behind the campaign’s purpose, gifting nearly $20 million to Lovett by 1996, well ahead of the original goal of $15.9 million.

New Middle School building

As the School neared the new millennium, plans were adopted to continue the physical development of campus buildings, including constructing a new Middle School, increasing athletic facilities, expanding library and technology centers, and modernizing spaces across campus. The strength of Lovett’s donor community led to nearly a decade’s worth of campus construction and improvements. The Our Defining Decade campaign raised more than $93 million for capital projects and the Lovett Endowment. The Portman Family Middle School, the baseball and softball complex, Rogers & Westmoreland Activity Center, and Murray Athletic Center were all opened to the community by 2015. Additionally, Fine Arts spaces in the Fuqua Center were improved following the 2009 flood, the Alston Memorial Chapel’s sound system was updated, and the dining hall was completely renovated. The new and updated spaces ensured the academic, spiritual, athletic, and artistic growth of our students would continue.

REENGAGING THE RIVERBANK FOR THE FUTURE

Campus evolution

After more than six decades along the Riverbank, school leadership seized an opportunity to study the capacities, limitations, and possibilities of Lovett’s campus and buildings in order to explore future changes. The recent Strategic Design Plan, initiated in 2019, presented renewed core values and an updated mission statement, reflecting Lovett’s purpose of developing students to thrive in learning and in life. To accomplish this, the School’s interior and exterior spaces need to fulfill the needs of today’s students and teachers.

With less than four years until Lovett’s Centennial, preparations are underway to equip the School for a new century of educating students. These preparations included selecting a design firm to help define and prioritize the physical and operational growth opportunities for the School. Since our buildings and spaces impact the way we educate and connect with one another, the process of choosing a firm to assist us in our master planning was critical to our mission.

After an initial round of requests for qualifications, three firms were selected to visit campus in February 2021, and engage faculty, staff, students, and other key stakeholders in brief, exploratory sessions. These charrettes revolved around three main priorities:

  1. Where and how we serve students.
  2. Where and how we gather as a community.
  3. Where and how we dine on campus.

From those sessions, Cooper Carry was chosen by the Building and Grounds Committee of the Board of Trustees to be Lovett’s partner in reenvisioning the School’s campus for the students and learning environments of today and the future. The Atlanta-based and award-winning design firm has worked with a long list of clients, including colleges like Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia, and Emory University; entities like NASA, Invesco, and State Farm; and K-12 institutions like the Barack and Michelle Obama Academy, Midtown High School, and Global Impact Academy.

Master planning provides a compass that guides the future development of a campus. This planning phase involves research, data collection, and wide-ranging conversations to look at how our buildings, spaces, and natural surroundings connect and how the campus could improve to unite all of these areas. It factors in community input, planning initiatives, existing development, and myriad other considerations. All of this will be used to identify how Lovett could reengage our riverside campus to better express our mission and purpose through our spaces, foster collaboration and community, and inspire a deep sense of pride from all who step foot on campus.

This campus renaissance—renewing our spaces for the future—fully aligns with Mrs. Lovett’s vision for her namesake school. She understood that continuous reflection and change need to happen “to keep in step with the constant changes occurring in the world around us. [A Lovett education] is a changing education for a changing civilization.” Lovett’s campus is in and of itself a tool to educate students and has routinely transformed to meet the demands of its students. It must—and will—continue to adapt to the academic environments of today and tomorrow that will allow our students to grow their love of learning.

And each time the School has sought to improve itself for the benefit of its students, it was the community’s ability to rise up and support the institution that truly elevated Lovett. Since the 1930s, when a group of city leaders raised funds to move Lovett to a wooded country campus, the tradition of philanthropy has helped develop compassionate and civic-minded leaders, fulfilling Mrs. Lovett’s vision.

As the student editors of the 1961 Leonid yearbook concluded, “...the dream instigated by Mrs. Lovett in 1926— that The Lovett School be an outstanding educational institution—was fast on its way to fulfillment by September, 1960... we challenge you to make this dream a reality, and to establish a reputation for Lovett of which we can all be proud.” More than 60 years later, the School, with the support of our community, remains tasked with furthering Mrs. Lovett’s dream for the students of today and the future.