In part one of The County Gin series, The Project at 500 Abell Street, we’ve covered the project’s inception and introduced A2J Holdings LLC — the property purchaser and developer of the project, and the Wharton County Heritage Partnership (WCHP) — the group opposed to the $8.75 million housing project’s location.
After the Wharton Independent School District (WISD) entered into the purchase agreement with A2J Holdings LLC for Hopper Elementary School (HES)— to save the historic building and continue developing the multi-family housing project, WCHP saw (and continues to see) the school’s future as an educational center or community campus.
Addressing the Wharton City Council through public comments on Monday, Jan. 10, WCHP member Merle Hudgins said, “I want to prove there is a lot of good things coming to Wharton. We’ve got a lot of money coming in and housing is going up, but how much housing do we need? And I think we need to look at that before we expand beyond the capacity to fill them.”
She continued, “I think what we need to consider today is something that El Campo has beat us at again. They have a fantastic use for their old school. I hope we can do the same here because our youth here needs to have a better way to get an education and get a career and come back to Wharton and be a good tax payer.”
Even though WCHP states they are not against the housing, only its location, Hudgins’ words coupled with published and submitted information on behalf of the organization suggest otherwise.
We’ll get into that in part three. First, let’s look at the historical value the structure brings to the Wharton community.
Architectural History of HES
You’ll notice that WCHP members refer to HES at Stephen F. Austin Elementary; Both are correct.
The school has held three names through the years — First, Stephen F. Austin Elementary, then, Abell Street School, and most recently, Minnie Mae Hopper Elementary.
The school was largely constructed in three major phases: 1930; 1935; and 1939. All utilized federal funds for public building projects under the New Deal.
Construction of the original 1930 four-room ward school began just as the 1929 Stock Market Crash occurred.
Salvaged brick from the former 1899 Wharton Public School was used to save money. The 1935 addition represents the majority of the school construction and was designed by Giesecke & Harris, of Austin, Texas.
Giesecke & Harris was active throughout the state of Texas and designed residential, commercial, and public buildings, especially schools—many of which were constructed with Public Works Administration funds during the Great Depression.
The firm also designed the Santa Rita Courts —the first federal housing project in the United States, funded and built under the 1937 Housing Act (a sub-program during President D. Rosevelt’s New Deal).
Matching the 1935 design, subsequent additions were added in 1939, designed by Hedrick & Lindsley, with local Wharton architect Albert A. Reber. The 1939 additions were funded as part of the second round of PWA matching grants.
The photo helps to date and showcase the structure.
The Little School of the 400
The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) initiated “The Little School of the 400” in 1958 and sought to teach 400 English words to non-English speaking preschoolers prior to entering first grade.
During the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement & Texas School Desegregation, The Little School of the 400 was implemented in nine Texas cities — Sugar Land, Aldine, Ganado, Edna, Brookshire, Rosenberg, Vanderbilt, Fort Stockton, and Wharton.
The program played inspiration to the Nationally known “Head Start” program, which remains and is utilized in Wharton and all across the country.
“Anglo-Latin Relations improve in Wharton” with Hispanic Desegregation
On January 12, 1952, The Saturday Evening Post published a photo captioned, “Mexican-American kids are no longer segregated in Wharton, Tex., primary schools. About forty Texas towns have started community projects to improve Anglo-Latin relations.”
Forgotten and abandoned for over 10 years, the fountains remain mounted in the school.
Bowlin intends to not only retain the water fountains, but to create a focal point surrounding the porcelain in a Heritage Wall. This wall, once completed, will highlight a historical focus on the significance water fountains hold during the time(s) of desegregation.
Minnie Mae Hopper
Minnie Mae Hopper whom the school is currently named after, was born in 1902. She was Wharton County Superintendent of Rural Schools from 1929 -1935.
Hopper taught school in Louise, Texas before enlisting in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in 1942, where she attained the rank of Sergeant.
After serving her country, Hopper returned to Wharton and became Principal of the WISD Sorrel Elementary — a school for Latin American students.
Hopper became a teacher at the Stephen F. Austin school (HES), and then, principal from 1951-1969.
At the age of 85, Hopper died in McLennan County, and is buried in the Wharton City Cemetery.
The site received state and national historical registration approval and was placed on the state’s list of most endangered historical places.
Every article that The County Gin has come across states that the building is set to be demolished; however, this is very much untrue.
The project developer has publicly stated his intentions to restore the building, and is legally bound through a contract with the State of Texas General Land Office.
Found within this contract is a Programmatic Agreement mandating compliance with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standard for Rehabilitation.
He’s even offered tours of the facility for the community to, “see for themselves,” plans to save the school while creating modern housing units.
The Gin attended and took part in the tour of Hopper Elementary on Saturday, Feb. 19. The video of the tour is below.
This article is part II of a series titles The Project at 500 Abell. Other parts to the series will be listed below.