As a boy, Martin Luther King Jr. attended a big brick school just a half-mile from the Auburn Avenue home where he was born.

The building became a neighborhood landmark, a spot where the footsteps of famous former students such as King, the city’s first Black mayor Maynard Jackson and basketball great Walt “Clyde” Frazier, still echo.

But when the school closed in 1976, the luster of that legacy started to fade. The building fell into disrepair. Plaster and paint chipped. Ceiling tiles dropped to the floor.

Then, this year of all years, came a rebirth.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Atlanta Public Schools just completed a two-year, $52 million renovation and expansion to reopen the building as David T. Howard Middle School.

On the first day of school, the only thing missing from the sunlit hallways, were the students.

The building is gorgeous, said seventh-grade English language arts teacher Kiersten Hellier-Hunter, who set up her computer in her empty classroom to teach her students virtually Monday.

“We’re heartbroken because the kids aren’t here, so it’s incomplete,” she said. “We can’t wait until they’re here.”

Principal Kevin Maxwell led Superintendent Lisa Herring and a couple dozen other masked school officials on a tour of the space that students won’t see until the district resumes in-person instruction. APS plans to conduct the first nine weeks of the school year online, or until there’s minimal to moderate spread of the coronavirus.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The Howard building opened in the 1920s as an elementary school on land donated by its namesake. David T. Howard, born into slavery in 1849 and freed after the Civil War, founded the city’s first Black-owned bank.

King attended the school in third through sixth grade, from 1936 to 1940.

In 1948, the building became the city’s second African-American high school before closing 44 years ago.

Voters in 2016 approved an extension of a one-cent sales tax to pay for about $464 million worth of building, technology and transportation upgrades. The Howard renovation and expansion was a crown jewel of the construction plan and one of the costliest projects.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Situated prominently near the Freedom Park Trail and the Beltline, the school sprawls across 7.4 acres — a mix of old brick and modern glass with skyline views.

A social studies classroom on the fourth floor offers a bird’s eye view of downtown Atlanta. It elicited gasps during Monday’s tour.

Students who previously attended Inman Middle School now will go to Howard. District officials said Inman, which enrolled 1,104 students last year, was overcrowded.

The Howard building has a capacity for 1,375 students.

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At Inman’s overflowing campus, eighth graders learned in portable classrooms. In the new school, they’ll be on the highest floor.

“We’ve told the eighth-grader teachers they’re going from the portables to the penthouse, so they were emotional,” said Maxwell.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

While the building boasts many modern amenities, Maxwell also pointed out the historical flourishes. One special room looks much like it would have when the school was built. Crews salvaged boards from around the building to piece together a hardwood floor. An original blackboard runs the length of the room, and transom windows filter light.

In the gymnasium, part of a 1949 addition, wooden bleachers bear the old carved seat numbers, though the gym now has an up-to-date heating and cooling system. Workers tracked down the manufacturer who made the old scoreboard and clock so that it could be restored and displayed once again.

During construction, crews cut down a large oak tree in front of the building where former students once gathered and posed for photos. The wood was made into a half-dozen benches that now furnish an interior lobby.

Amanda Knodel, the board secretary for the Old Fourth Ward Business Association, said in a phone interview that the revived school could prompt more small shops to open nearby and attract residents to the neighborhood. It also will bring more traffic, something she and others are keeping an eye on.

In a corner of the city that’s particularly proud of its legacy, people were happy “to see that history re-imagined or restarted for the next generation,” she said.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Having his child go to the same school as King is “something really special,” said Ian Irwin, president of the parent-teacher organization, in a phone interview.

He’s only caught a glimpse of the gleaming interior through the front door, but he’s pleased with how school staffers have handled the upheaval brought on by the pandemic.

“It’s, to me, a reminder that you can build the nicest school building in the world, but the greatest asset that a school has is always going to be its teachers,” he said.

Morningside Elementary School will move temporarily into the Inman building while Morningside undergoes renovations.

About David T. Howard Middle School

Location: Old Fourth Ward in Atlanta

Original construction: circa 1924

Closed: 1976

Renovation cost: $52 million

Campus size: 7.4 acres

Building size: 209,000-square feet

Now serving: Students who previously attended Inman Middle School

Famous former students: Martin Luther King Jr., former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, NBA star Walt “Clyde” Frazier and Olympic gold medalist Mildred McDaniel Singleton