James Fox-Smith, my friend and co-organizer of the Walker Percy Weekend, writes a column about the old Julius Freyhan High School in St. Francisville. The Weekend is sponsored by the Julius Freyhan Foundation, a 501(c)(3) arts organization dedicated to restoring the school and turning it into a community center. From James’s column:
Inside the school there was dark beaded wainscoting, tall windows, Romanesque woodwork flourishes, deep cloakrooms, and a beautiful pair of separated wooden staircases—one for the boys; one for the girls—leading to the second floor. Climbing these you arrived at what is surely the Freyhan school’s most impressive feature—a magnificent auditorium complete with pressed-tin ceiling, raised stage, footlights, and floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides. Astonishing to encounter on this sleepy side street in St. Francisville’s historic district, this ballroom forms a spectacular centerpiece in a breathtaking building. Looking around, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see its potential.
Nancy Vinci certainly sees it. For years she and a dedicated group of supporters have been working to raise funds, not only to restore the Freyhan School’s physical presence, but also to develop a self-sustaining business plan to ensure it a viable civic and economic role. The appeal of the ballroom as a wedding, reception, and performance venue is easy to see. But the building could also offer inspiring studio space for visiting artists, event and conference facilities for a range of community activities, and a Jewish history museum to honor its founder.
And while it’s undeniably the centerpiece, the school itself represents only one part of a three-stage redevelopment plan. Stage one: Temple Sinai. Standing adjacent to the Freyhan School, St. Francisville’s tiny, original Jewish temple building has already been restored for use as an event facility hosting lectures, presentations and other small cultural events. The school is stage two. Stage three will be to restore the school’s original amphitheatre to serve as an outdoor venue for concerts and theatre performances.
Funding for the school building restoration has been included in state capital outlay funding this year. Private and corporate funds continue to be raised.That said, there’s still a long way to go before the school will be ready to host its first event.
So why talk about the project now? Because one of the compelling reasons to bring a historic landmark like this back into the fabric of community life is for the opportunity it represents to nurture culturally enriching events in a small-town setting.
In 2014 Country Roads is participating in one of these. Planned for June 6—8, the Walker Percy Weekend will be a two-day literary festival celebrating the life and writings of the influential author and National Book Award-winner Walker Percy. Planned are a series of panel discussions with visiting scholars of Southern literature, readings, tours to visit sites described in Percy’s fiction, a Saturday night gala dinner in the park, and a historic porch tour and bourbon tasting inspired by Percy’s famous essay “Bourbon, Neat.” All proceeds support the Freyhan School restoration project.
Mr. Freyhan was not only a philanthropist, but a bourbon-maker. A great American, for sure. More information about the Walker Percy Weekend here. June 6-8, 2014. The Freyhan Foundation is eagerly seeking your tax-deductible donations to meet the costs of the Weekend. One of this blog’s readers knocked my socks off just before Christmas by sending $1,000 to the Foundation, earmarking it for the Weekend — this, in part to honor the influence Percy had on bringing him into the Catholic Church.
I’m still working on the program’s speakers. Among those we have confirmed: Wilfred McClay, Peter Augustine Lawler, and Ralph Wood. This really is going to be a great event. We’d love to have you help support it, either by your donation, your presence, or — ideally — both. E-mail me at rod (at) amconmag.com if you want more info.