Over a year ago, just about dinner time on September 12th, smoke billowed from our beloved Tampa Heights landmark, Robert E. Lee Elementary. The neighborhood had been plunged into darkness after Hurricane Irma struck the Bay Area. As power was restored, it is thought that an electrical fire began that was fearlessly fought by Tampa Fire Department.
Neighbors and the entire city watched as flames, fueled by the dry old timbers, escaped through the roof illuminating the skyline for miles. It was a heartbreaking call for the incident commander, with the roof about to collapse, he pulled firefighters out from the engulfed building. Safety for his firefighters outweighed saving the grand old school. They continued the fight from overhead and outside of the building well into the evening. The following morning, smoke was still present but the fight was over.
Students, faculty and staff tearfully came to grips with what remained of their school. Memories and the exterior walls remained. The charred structure would be lost to them, and most certainly to future students and educators. Students began their new school year elsewhere, a saddened heart in tow, the school board placed great emphasis on keeping them together. Space was found at nearby Lockhart Elementary.
But recently, the sad story of loss is met with firm plans to resurrect Lee Elementary. On October 16th of this year, the School Board unanimously approved a plan to resurrect the grand old school. After months of negotiating with insurers, the full cost of rebuilding the structure at 305 E Columbus Drive will be covered.
Fleischmann-Garcia Architects and Planners, and JE Dunn Construction, the district’s design team, have been appointed to oversee the planning and cost estimating phase of the project. While it is difficult to pinpoint a specific date of completion, 12 to 18 months is expected.
While early plans call for a design that would retain Lee’s red brick exterior, the interior would have wider hallways and a larger cafeteria and media center. There is also concern over the name of the school, Robert E. Lee.
A New Name Selected for Lee
The name change is something of a political thing that began in 2017. The “slap in the face” of children of color and their ancestors that had been oppressed for generations were finally being acknowledged.
Two names amongst dozens floated before the Hillsborough County School Board were considered the front runners. The name selected was the one that best reflected the heritage and the character of the school’s location: Tampa Heights Elementary.
So as the history page turns, we move to an entirely new chapter for this iconic setting of education. The children of Tampa Heights and surrounding neighborhoods will feel the powerful image of the bricks being mortared back into place, cementing a new school with a new name as our new cornerstone of this tremendous community.