Prominently placed in the center of Smithville in Cornelius, the old Rosenwald School tells the story of segregation in the 1920s and of the rural black community of the 1950s.
But for the children in the neighborhood, the school-turned-community-center is most appealing for its large swath of land and the rickety swing set off to the side.
Regardless of its incarnation, the old school has remained a focal point for Smithville's predominantly black community.
But in recent years, residents have all but ended community events at the center, citing the high cost of rent as well as the condition of the 80-plus-year-old building.
Cornelius town officials gave the former Smithville Rosenwald School a historic landmark designation in 2006 after property owner Milton Howard requested it.
With the designation, owners must receive approval from the town's historic preservation commission to make major alterations to the building or to destroy it. It also means the owner receives a 50 percent reduction in property taxes.
At the time of the designation, Howard told the Observer he would like to see a nonprofit organization take over the building and use it for community activities.
Five years later, the building sits largely vacant save for the occasional community event.
The Observer was unable to reach Howard for this story.
The Smithville school was built in the early 1920s as part of The Rosenwald School Building Program. Julius Rosenwald, future president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, created the fund with his family in 1917 to bring education to black children living in the rural South.
The Rosenwald program funded the construction of more than 5,300 schools, buildings and teachers' houses in 15 states. North Carolina had most of these buildings with more than 800. Of that number, 26 were in Mecklenburg County.
"They were an integral part of the history of the south, of black education in particular," said Bettie Murchison, a board member for Preservation North Carolina. "These schools were built at a time when blacks were trying to rise up out of poverty and did not have the nice school buildings."
Resident Armetta Cathcart, 60, said her father attended the Rosenwald School in the 1930s. The late Leonard Nelson often mused over the fact that his friends and he would jump out the windows in the back of the building if they wanted to leave school early, she said.
In 1954, the Mecklenburg County Board of Education auctioned off the school to five men for about $2,500. The group transformed the school into The Better Community Club, which housed everything from a barber shop to a vaccination clinic.
"Back then, everything happened at the center. It brought the community together," said Cathcart, who added that she often visited the center as a teenager for Friday and Saturday night dances. "To see it closed up like that when it should be used - it's hard."
The high cost of using the facility-among other factors-has discouraged many Smithville residents from using the building, residents said.
"It needs to be repaired," said longtime resident Annie Gaston, 81, who noted the leaks in the old school's roof as well as rotting floorboards.
Resident Nannie Potts, 73, said she hosted recreational summer camps for decades at the community center but ended the program recently because of the condition of the building and the cost of rent.
Potts said she is unaware of what Howard plans to do with the building, adding that she hasn't see him since the property was designated.
Howard does not live in Cornelius.
Margaret Ahern, a member on the town's Historic Preservation Commission, said she also doesn't know what Howard plans for the building.
"They could re-create the original classroom and re-establish what a one- or two- room school room looked like," she said. "The emphasis would be on what a school house looked like back in the day."
Still, Murchison said the Smithville building has fared considerably better than other Rosenwald schools in North Carolina - many of which were boarded up or torn down. Schools that were converted into community centers were rare, she said.
Even though the Smithville building isn't frequented as much as it once was, both young and old residents said they still see it as the epicenter of their community.
"Smithville was a strong community with strong roots that are still here," said Cathcart. "The center is what kept this community together."