Students and teachers cleaned up charred debris from a cherished classroom building at the Paideia School on Saturday as they prepared to resume classes in the wake of an intense blaze that struck their Druid Hills campus.
Meanwhile, Atlanta fire officials were trying to find who was responsible for the fire that destroyed “the Mother Goose,” a building where hundreds of students once studied history at the private school.
Firefighters were dispatched at 7:23 p.m. Friday to battle the blaze, which started on the building’s front porch and spread to the attic, officials said. No one was hurt.
A spokesman for the Atlanta Department of Fire Rescue said arson was to blame and that investigators had identified “some people they want to talk to, to question.”
School officials said the building appears to be a total loss and they have not yet decided how they will replace the space.
Paideia headmaster Paul Bianchi called the crime “senseless” and declared classes will resume Monday. Courses that were taught in the building will be relocated to other classrooms.
“As with any crime, there is a sense of violation,” Bianchi said as he watched volunteers set up tables for an annual barbecue and square dance Saturday. “This school will rebound.”
School officials did not immediately have an estimate for the damage. But Bianchi said in an e-mail to parents that insurance would help the school recover some of its losses. A theater attached to the building had limited water damage, Bianchi said.
“The Mother Goose” dated to the 1920s. The building was a day care facility when Paideia bought it in 1982. Students liked the name, so “The Mother Goose” stuck and the brick building with white trim became a favorite hangout for freshmen.
Scores of students, parents and teachers showed up on the campus of the 39-year-old school Saturday and helped clean up. Some hugged as they saw the blackened remains of the building for the first time.
“What impressed me most about this was the strong sense of community at Paideia,” said Jane Cronin, whose children attended classes in the building. “There were tons of people here helping. We will rise above and be stronger.”
Cronin’s 18-year-old daughter, Cameron Wethern, surveyed the damage nearby with a friend at her side. She studied psychology in the building.
“It is just devastating,” she said. “I couldn’t quite picture it being gone.”
Rachel Deane, a sophomore, said at Saturday night’s barbecue that she though people were playing with her when she first found out about the fire by text message.
Later, when she went on Facebook, a lot of posts expressed anger, and people were saying, “We’ve got to find out who did this.”
Nicole Siegel, a sophomore who attended the barbecue, said all her freshman memories are in the building.
“It’s kind of sad actually,” Siegel said, “but I think it’s really hard for the teachers.”
Earlier in the day, history teachers and coaches gazed sadly at the remains of the building and talked about all they may have lost inside: out-of-print books about the Holocaust, school soccer uniforms and trophies. They were not yet able to go inside and look for anything to salvage.
“It was stunning. The flames were so high,” said social studies teacher Carl Rosenbaum, who said he watched for more than two hours Friday night as the fire consumed the building where he once taught classes. “I loved my little room.”
For more than 24 years, history teacher Marty Hays filled his classroom in the building with historic photos, paintings, magazines and posters. He said the room “kind of defined who I was. I was so proud of the room.”
Hays was not sure Saturday how much of his belongings survived the blaze. But he pointed to something that did. On the doorway to his classroom hung a 1959 poster of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, three famous rock stars who died in a plane crash that year.
“They didn’t survive the plane crash,” Hays said, “but they survived the fire.”
Staff writers Larry Hartstein and Mashaun D. Simon contributed to this article.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.