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Act II Brings New Role for Former Social Hall

Students helped build the Fairfax High facility in 1939. Long neglected, it is now home to a theater group and school activities.

May 29, 2003|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

The kids built the place themselves 64 years ago to help save Fairfax High School's fancy auditorium from spilled soda and scuffed floors.

These days, their building is helping to save the whole school from the effects of budget cutbacks.

After years of neglect, the former campus social hall called Greenway Court has been resurrected as a community theater that has turned into the centerpiece of an ambitious campaign to raise both consciousness and cash in the Fairfax district.

The peak-roofed, wood-framed building was constructed in 1939 by Fairfax High carpentry class students in conjunction with a trade school.

Besides being a hands-on class project, construction of the rambling structure served as something of a Fairfax history lesson.

With its rooftop cupola and its dormer windows perched over a full-length veranda, it was designed to resemble Greenway Court, a hunting lodge built in the wilds of Virginia in 1760 by colonist Thomas Fairfax.

The British nobleman and friend of George Washington was known as Lord Fairfax. He held title to more than 5 million acres around the Shenandoah Valley before the American Revolution.

His 60-foot-long lodge, basically a banquet hall and land sales office, was named after his family's Greenway Court estate in Hollingbourne, England. Historians say Fairfax's Virginia estate was used until about 1830, after which it was abandoned. The lodge no longer exists.

Fairfax High's Greenway Court was a center of student activity for nearly 30 years.

Built near the center of the campus, close to the athletic fields, it was used for student dances, cookie-and-coffee receptions and other activities either not allowed in or inappropriate for the school's ornate, circa-1924 auditorium.

The wooden structure was uprooted and moved to the edge of the campus facing Fairfax Avenue when most of the school was rebuilt in the late 1960s to meet earthquake standards. For the next three decades, it sat abandoned, used primarily for storing old desks, typewriters and other classroom equipment.

Greenway Court got a new lease on life by accident.

In 1996, a nonprofit community theater group called New Attitude Productions negotiated the use of a Fairfax High parking lot for a fund-raising flea market. Organizers agreed to share profits from the weekly event with the school.

The troupe needed its part of the proceeds to rent stage space around town. But six months after the flea markets began, group co-founder Pierson Blaetz noticed the abandoned social hall and quickly decided that its ample interior space would make a perfect 99-seat equity waiver theater. Its proximity to Fairfax Avenue and school parking lots was perfect too.

"It was complete serendipity," says troupe co-founder Whitney Weston.

Blaetz and Weston negotiated a lease of Greenway Court from school officials, promising to repair, upgrade and maintain it in lieu of paying rent. At the same time, they mapped out plans to integrate Fairfax High students into the theatrical productions they had in mind for the new playhouse.

New Attitude Productions quickly took on a new name: the Greenway Arts Alliance. Students such as those from Fairfax High's ROTC program helped clean out and renovate Greenway Court. Once work such as installation of new electric wiring was completed and seats were installed, the old hall came to life again in January 2000.

These days, it's used Monday nights for a writers and directors lab, Tuesday nights for free open-mike poetry readings and other evenings for theatrical productions. During the day, it's the setting for such Fairfax High activities as drama, poetry and Shakespearean workshops and after-school film and multimedia instruction.

Students also help run the Sunday antiques and collectibles flea market -- called the Melrose Trading Post.

Proceeds from the market are divided three ways among the school, student workers and the theater troupe. Some youngsters are hired directly to work as ticket-takers or members of setup crews. Others volunteer through campus clubs and athletic groups in 12-hour shifts at the swap meet to raise money for their organizations.

The flea market has raised about $500,000 in the last five years for various school groups, campus programs and student scholarships, according to alliance managing director Meredith Freeman. An independent group of parents and school administrators oversees disbursement of those funds, acting on formal requests from sports teams, campus clubs and instructional programs.

"It's been a positive experience all the way around. I could be philosophical about it, but I think we just got real lucky," said Principal Heather Daims.

Fairfax High graduate Rena Kosnett said Greenway Court proved to be a defining part of her life. She started as a student worker at the swap meet and was among those who volunteered to renovate the abandoned social hall. After that, she signed on as an intern when plays began being staged there.

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