The Withers/ W.T.S. Building sits atop the highest point of land in Rock Hill, on the ridge line between the Catawba River and Fishing Creek drainage basins. For thousands of years the quartz outcroppings visible in the hill were used by Native Americans to quarry and manufacture stone weapons and tools. Evidence of their activities- stone flakes, tools and broken projectile points- can still be found on the Withers grounds.
The land was not settled in the late 1700s by white pioneers like most of the Carolina Upcountry, because it had been reserved for the Catawba Indians by the British Royal governors in 1763. Nevertheless by the 1820s, certain enterprising settlers had leased large tracts from the Indians. Among them were the settlers who built the farmhouse one block south of the Withers/ W.T.S. Building on College Avenue (the McCorkle-Fewell House). Forests were cleared and the rocky soil farmed until the 1880s when Rock Hill boomed as a regional industrial center for railroading and textiles, and its boundaries spread out along the railroad lines. Meanwhile, the Indians had lost their title to the land in 1842 when the Treaty of Nations Ford reduced their holdings in York County from over a hundred square miles to a small reservation on the Catawba River.
In 1891 the Rock Hill Land and Town Site Company was formed to subdivide the acreage in the “Oakland” section of Rock Hill near the northern city limits. One of the company’s first deals was the sale of an 8 acre tract to the Rock Hill Presbyterian Church for a male high school. The schoolhouse and dormitory, completed within a year, dominated the hilltop until 1913, when the west wing of the Winthrop Training School was opened.
The Presbyterian High School, as it originally appeared, was a two story masonry building with a full, raised basement and a square plan with a projecting entrance stairwell. The entrance led past a symmetrical divided flight stairway to a central hall running through the building to the rear exit. This hall was crossed in the center of the building by a transverse hall to side exists. Between these crossed halls were four large classrooms on the first floor. The divided entrance stairs led to a large, open assembly area on the second floor, and down to the basement. A thorough description of the original auditorium and basement is not available since both have been extensively remodeled and original plans cannot be found.
The schoolhouse had symmetrical gable roofs running down the sides with a cross gable center section. From the front of the center section, rose a large square tower with steeple roof and truncated hip base. Rising from the front ends of the gabled side roofs were identical smaller square towers, much like a rural Russian church. Front and rear windows were in groups of three with semi-circular arches on the top floor and semi-elliptical arches on the first floor. The wide, recessed front entrance had a double, paneled door and semi-elliptical arch to match window arches. Side windows were narrow and rectangular with arched side doorways between classrooms.
A separate building for student dormitories was on the north side of the schoolhouse. It was a three story masonry building with rectangular plan and a projecting three story wood portico supported by separate square wood columns. The roof of the main section was hipped with a center gable, pedimented portico roof. Narrow, rectangular 6/6 sash windows were evenly spaced, one per bedroom. The plan had a central hallway with end entrances crossed by the entrance hall, and bedrooms on either side of the hall. The dormitory, later called Catawba Hall, was demolished in 1968.
The boys’ high school continued to serve the various institutional arrangements in the Rock Hill area for 13 years. (A public graded school had been built in 1888). In 1897 the Presbyterian School was purchased by Davidson College, a Presbyterian affiliate. In 1904 it was purchased by the Catawba Male Academy and served as a military school for several years. The Rock Hill School Board bought the property (1906) for a public high school to compliment its graded school. But in 1908 the school closed during the ferocious legal battle between the School Board and Winthrop over its proper use.
Winthrop’s first president, David Bancroft Johnson, had an eye on the property ever since the first years of Winthrop at Rock Hill. Johnson promoted a rapid expansion program for Winthrop to buy up as much land as possible to the north and east, where the high school sat. Complaints about the boys’ school located so close to a girls’ college added weight to Johnson’s arguments for acquiring the property. He had always wanted a building for teacher training, the original function of Winthrop, but was forced to use most of the classroom space in the main (Tillman Administration Building) building for industrial and academic instruction. In 1908 Johnson appealed to the Winthrop Trustees to acquire the high school property. There was some opposition to his plan among the Winthrop Trustees, since some of them also served on the Rock Hill School Board. The influence of Senator Benjamin R. Tillman, Winthrop’s political patron, on the State Legislature and Supreme Court finally resulted in the property being deeded over to Winthrop in 1910.
Obviously, the modest schoolhouse was not large enough for Winthrop’s model school. The architectural firm Edwards and Sayward from Atlanta was retained to design a new building. Winthrop had secured $125,000 from Northern philanthropists for this purpose. Plans were completed in 1911 and construction finished by J. A. Jones Construction Co. of Charlotte in 1913.
The main building, called the West Wing, is a three story masonry and stone English Tudor Eclectic palace with an “E” shaped plan. A square central tower, with octagonal corner turrets, rises five stories above the ground. The gabled slate roof, with cross gabled wings, is partially hidden by a crenellated masonry/stone parapet continuous with very high stepped gable end parapets. The main roof also features gabled attic dormers and matching octagonal wood spires on each end. Projecting center and end entrances have moulded stone Tudor arches, and elaborate paneled trim in brick, stone, and terra cotta. Similar paneled trim is found on and between the center turrets above the fourth floor level, and on the gable parapets.
Windows, in groups of three and four are 4/4 sash with wood frames and four paned transoms. Window groups are emphasized in the brick walls with plain stone lintels and sills. Narrow, half-width slit windows on the wing corners and octagonal turrets add to the English tone of the building. Double entrance doors, like the projecting entrance vestibules, have Tudor arches and are framed in wood with sidelights, transoms, and upper glass panels.
Entrance through the central doors leads to an elaborate stairwell foyer with plaster pilasters and panels; marble wainscot, steps and step bases; and scalloped plaster wall niches. The wide central hall on each floor runs to the end entrances with dog-leg wooden staircases connecting all three floors. A symmetrical staircase (with divided flights) in the entrance foyer leads only to the second floor. Staircases feature peculiar curved floor level openings and heavy wood railings with moulded banisters. The halls are plainly detailed with wide, moulded wood baseboards, paneled wood doors with glass panes and plain wood frames, and 7’ high wood mouldings on walls.
Classrooms opening onto the halls are plainly decorated with wide, wood baseboards and sheer plaster walls. The kindergarten, on the back end of the south wing, features interior structural arches which also help divide the space of the large room. Behind the central tower, a small wing contains offices and restrooms on each floor. A small, full turn staircase on the third floor of the back wing leads to the attic and fourth floor gym, covering the combined space of the central tower and back wing. This gym was abandoned in 1952 when the new gymnasium was built behind the East Wing.
Shortly after construction of the West Wing, the East Wing was extensively remodeled and connected with the new building by a covered walkway. Towers were removed and gable roofs replaced with hipped slate roof. The upstairs assembly area was converted into an auditorium with stage and 359 fixed seats. A basement swimming pool was built under the stage addition. In 1996 the auditorium was remodeled and changed into a 250-seat technology classroom.
In 1952 the new gym was added to the back of the East Wing. Designed by G. Thomas Harmon, Architect, of Columbia, the modern structure has masonry walls and pilasters and structural steel ceiling with a bow truss roof. Bleachers seat over 500 for the large, competition sized basketball floor. When the gym was added, the basement of the East Wing already had showers, locker rooms, and training facilities for males and females.
There have been many superficial alterations to the interiors of both wings of the Withers/W.T.S. Building, but they have not adversely affected its architectural integrity. Ceilings were sheet rocked and fixed with suspended fluorescent lights, wood floors were covered with linoleum tile, and the heat system was modernized.
In 1972, after the building ceased to function as a model school, an office annex, designed by Paula Treder, Architect, of Rock Hill, was added connecting the East and West Wings. This modern masonry connector has a wide hall on each floor with small offices on each side. The halls connect with the original wood staircase landings on the East Wing and with the back wing corridors on the West Wing. The ground floor hall and steps leading up to the East Wing are laid with a fascinating square and diamond patterned brick tile.
With the conversion of the building to academic use minor partition changes have been made, but none of these affect the architectural integrity of the original buildings. First and second floors are used by the School of Education. The third floor was shared with the Department of Modern Languages in the 1970s and 1980s, but later the building was solely used by the School of Education.
In 1989 renovations were begun to the interior of the building. These renovations, completed in 1992, were to solve problems with the poor wiring and the inadequate telephone, heating and air conditioning systems that marked the original building. Also walls were thickened to prevent conversations from being heard from other rooms and the restrooms were updated to adequately serve the growing student population. The renovations also involved adding two computer labs for students, creating office space on the fourth floor and a larger area for the instructional materials center. Following the completion of these renovations, the building was rededicated in April 1992 as the Withers/W.T.S. Building.
Withers/W.T.S. Building is a building with important historical significance on the local, state, and national levels. Locally, the 1891 boys’ high school was an important landmark in the suburbs of Rock Hill and had an outstanding academic program with students from several states. The site on which the building sits is geographically and archeologically significant as the highest point in the city and a continuing quarry and workshop for Indian artisans and hunters for thousands of years. This kind of an archeological site, however, is not likely to yield significant information about the past because it has been greatly disturbed by land grading and there are many similar sites, in better condition, in the region.
The Winthrop Training School has been a landmark in Rock Hill and a source of pride for many Rock Hill natives who have attended it. It had one of the best academic programs in the state for decades, exposing a wide variety of social and economic groups to innovative educational environments.
The school had the most progressive teacher training program in the southeast during its early years which continued through its existence and manifested itself through several innovations employed at the Training School including the kindergarten program applying theories of leading child psychologists of the time, the athletic program which set a model for other schools, and the ungraded primary school experiment in the 1950s.
Architecturally, Withers/W.T.S. Building is undoubtedly the finest English Eclectic building in the state. The overall design is surprisingly elegant, with Gothic, Tudor, and Renaissance elements lightening, rather than cluttering, the brick facade. Terra cotta mouldings, and sculptures on the building are irreplaceable works of craftsmanship. The central tower, and entrance vestibule, are especially elegant and luxurious. The building has some resemblance to the entrance to the clock court at Hampton Court (ca. 1520) built by Cardinal Wolsey, and to the St. John’s College at Cambridge (1511), but is more stylized than these original Tudor/Gothic buildings. The towers on the central section are more like those on Winchester Cathedral. The high, stepped gable parapets, banks of windows, and panel designs in masonry are more reminiscent of English Jacobean mansions such as the Holland House at Kensington and Hatfield House at Herts (ca. 1607-1610).