History and mystery at Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts

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This photo hanging in the Center for Puppetry Arts, housed in the old Spring Street Elementary School building, shows faculty members from 1948. Photos: Jennifer Brett

April 5, 1933, was a busy day at Spring Street Elementary School. James Oglethorpe, American Indian settlements, the Legislature and a look at what mail delivery was like during Colonial times were all on the educational menu.

Pupils learned about the state flag, bird, seal and flower, and there was some multitasking going on, too. Students named Sybil, Eleanor and Josephine evidently were due for a health checkup, and Langdon, Joe, Martha and Louise apparently had dental visits in their near futures.

We know all this because a chalkboard used that day, decades before the building on Spring Street became the home of the Center for Puppetry Arts, was never erased. Artwork affixed to the board, which appears to have been made by children, remains all these years later, in remarkably good shape.

History on display at the Center for Puppetry Arts, housed in the old Spring Street Elementary School building. Photos: Jennifer Brett

History on display at the Center for Puppetry Arts, housed in the old Spring Street Elementary School building. The old classroom is still used for instruction, as evidenced by the art supplies on the tables in front of the board. Photos: Jennifer Brett

“Isn’t it magical?” asked Aretta Baumgartner, the center’s educational director, as she marveled over the unique time capsule the other day. “It reminds us that even amidst all the progress, there’s tradition that we need to preserve.”

The untouched chalkboard was first discovered in 1992, and then uncovered again in 2002. It made a reappearance last month when center staff members were changing out the panels currently on display. Most of the time, it is preserved like a fossil in amber.

Artwork remains in remarkably good shape all these years later. Photos: Jennifer Brett

Artwork remains in remarkably good shape all these years later. Photos: Jennifer Brett

The original board has been treated with a spray fixative to preserve the writing and artwork. When it’s time to cover it back up, double-stick tape is placed around the periphery and then a new board that can display modern exhibits is placed directly over it.

“I knew I had to be careful,” said education program coordinator Jeff Domke, who was in charge of that delicate task both this time and in 2002. “I’d forgotten how old it was when I opened it up again this time.”

Students were learning about various topics the day their chalkboard was last used. Photos: Jennifer Brett

Students were learning about various topics the day their chalkboard was last used. Photos: Jennifer Brett

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Preserved chalk writing gives clues but Center for Puppetry Arts staff members would love more details. Photos: Jennifer Brett

Preserved chalk writing gives clues but Center for Puppetry Arts staff members would love more details. Photos: Jennifer Brett

If you want to see it, act fast. The original board will be covered up again by mid-February. It’s like if King Tut’s Tomb were examined and then preserved in place.

“We’re a museum,” said marketing director Daniel Summers Jr. “We want to show history, but we also want to preserve it.”

A handy bit of historical authentication: this scrap of newspaper that helpfully lists the date is among the items affixed to the chalkboard. Photos: Jennifer Brett

A handy bit of historical authentication: this scrap of newspaper that helpfully lists the date is among the items affixed to the chalkboard. Photos: Jennifer Brett

Spring Street’s notable alumni include the late Yolanda King and her brother Martin Luther King III, the late former Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. and Atlanta business columnist Maria Saporta. Proud graduates maintain a public Facebook page titled Spring Street Elementary Alumni.

This photo hanging in the Center for Puppetry Arts, housed in the old Spring Street Elementary School building, shows faculty members from 1948. Photos: Jennifer Brett

This photo hanging in the Center for Puppetry Arts, housed in the old Spring Street Elementary School building, shows faculty members from 1948. Photos: Jennifer Brett

Given the advent of social media and digital connectivity, center staff members are hoping someone will read about their cherished chalkboard and will get in touch to help tell a more complete story.

The names J.B. Maltbie and H.O. Bray are written in chalk, but a message on a board in an adjoining room cleared that up. “This slate was put up by H.O. Bray and J.B. Maltbie April 5, 1933 7:30 a.m.,” it reads.

Mystery (partly) solved! Photo courtesy of Bill Jones

Mystery (partly) solved! Photo courtesy of Bill Jones

What about Sybil, Eleanor, Josephine, Langdon, Joe, Martha or Louise; are their descendants or their schoolmates’ out there anywhere?

If any of this rings a bell, center staff members would love to hear from you. Call 404-873-3089 or see puppet.org.

Modern areas of the Center for Puppetry Arts feature performance spaces and exhibitions including the beloved Jim Henson collection. The former school building still celebrates its original educational mission, offering various programs and workshops.

Noted Baumgartner: “When people ask, ‘Did this used to be a school?’ we say, ‘It still is.’”

The Center for Puppetry Arts

Museum and store hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays (museum); 9:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays (store); 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and noon-5 p.m. Sundays. The Center for Puppetry Arts, 1404 Spring St. N.W., Atlanta. 404-873-3391 (ticket sales) or 404-873-3089 (administration). See centerforpuppetryarts.com for ticket prices and more information.