Massie School ceased being a public school in 1974 because it was too small to support a viable student population. The school was a cherished institution by many local residents, especially in the downtown area. Many people wanted assurance that Massie would be preserved and put to good use as an educational resource. One of the greatest proponents of Massie’s preservation was Mrs. Emma Morel Adler. Mrs. Adler became a Chatham County School Board member in 1975. She was a Savannah native raised in the downtown historic district, and was passionate about saving the city’s historic treasures. A specific focus of hers was on the preservation of Massie, and would remain so for the next four decades.
Mrs. Adler soon partnered with Saxon Pope Bargeron, a former School Board President, who set up an office in the building and began researching its prestigious history and developing a concept about converting it into a heritage center. She was employed by the school system to fulfill this mission. In their planning and collaboration with the School Board, Mrs. Adler and Mrs. Bargeron developed a support group known as the Friends of Massie Committee. Mrs. Adler was chosen to be the board representative on this committee.
First, the committee committed itself to restoring Massie’s appearance to proper historic standards so that the building could achieve standing on the National Register of Historic Places. With funding from the school system, Massie’s historic front doors were renovated to their original appearance, the roof was replaced, all the windows were repaired, and the building’s exterior stucco was restored once again to its original tint.
Once Massie’s appearance was refurbished, the friends committee then began the arduous task of developing a heritage education program. At the time, utilizing a facility for such a concept was a rather innovative idea. So, Mrs. Adler contacted The National Trust for Historic Preservation for consultation. They were able to bring Dr. Antoinette Lee to Savannah. Dr. Lee had extensively researched heritage education programs conducted in England, and was able to help the committee develop a curriculum for Massie. The focus would be on instructing students and their teachers in Savannah’s history, its city plan, and the architectural styles. Utilizing the “community as the classroom” concept, all efforts would be put into creating lessons that catered to the public school curriculum. Massie’s newly renovated doors opened up once again to the public in 1978, but this time as a heritage center rather than a school.
The first Heritage Education Specialist at Massie was Mrs. Sarah Parsons. She and Mrs. Adler studied under legendary Armstrong College History professor Roger Warlick to become experts on Savannah’s unique history. In time Mrs. Parsons would become an institutional figure in downtown Savannah guiding students around with her characteristic pointing stick. To this day, grown adults come back to Massie and reminisce about their early years on tour with Mrs. Parsons.
In time, the Savannah Chatham Public School System began sending hundreds of students each year to Massie to take advantage of this heritage education program. Soon, hundreds blossomed into thousands, as outlying school districts also began to utilize Massie’s educational programming.
Part of the Friends work also involved researching and developing museum exhibits for Massie, especially the heritage classroom that is a replica of an original nineteenth century classroom. Mrs. Bargeron and Mrs. Adler went to Madison, Georgia to find period desks to use. While doing so, they met Mr. James W. Morton, a master exhibit designer. They were delighted to find out he was living in Savannah. Mr. Morton designed all of Massie’s original exhibits. Most notably he developed the impressive city plan model that is Massie’s signature educational resource. This model shows Savannah’s historic district, along with all its structures, squares, and buildings, as it would have appeared in the 1850s. So much of our city’s history is conveyed using this exhibit and its innovative laser guided interpretation.
Over the years, the Friends of Massie has endured many changes in membership. However, it has always been a vital institution to the success of the center’s operations. The organization has raised funds for much needed exhibit improvements, living history uniforms for interpreters, programming, and a host of other needs. The Friends of Massie is a nonprofit group of volunteers whose mission is to support the Massie Heritage Center-Savannah’s museum for history and architecture. We encourage members of the public to become a part of this mission by joining this organization.