TUPELO – Renovations at Lawhon Elementary School revealed a surprise this week that will make the school’s auditorium look a lot like it did when Elvis Presley was a student there in the early 1940s.
As they were pulling up tile in the school’s auditorium, workers at Lawhon found original hardwood floors from when the school was built in the 1930s. Instead of replacing the tile, Tupelo Public School District director of maintenance Kirk Kitchens said they decided to refinish the heart pine floors.
“We knew it would look so good that we decided to keep them and refinish them,” Kitchens said. “It’s probably been under that tile since the 1960s.”
The school has been completely renovated this summer as part of the Tupelo Public School District’s $44 million bond issue, passed in 2015.
Mike Riggs, a contractor helping with Lawhon’s renovation, said workers didn’t stain the floors and opted instead to sand them and apply a natural polyurethane clear-coat to the wood, letting the color of the heart pine planks to warm up the room.
“It’s not like the stuff they put down nowadays,” Riggs said.
After refinishing the floors, the original seats were moved back into the auditorium, including a seat that’s been marked as one the King of Rock n’ Roll sat in as a student.
Another seat is engraved with “Elvis was here,” although Kitchens said he’s not sure if Presley actually carved those words into the seat himself.
“We don’t know if Elvis actually did that, but we thought it was neat,” Kitchens said.
Along with the restoration of the floors and installation of the original seats, the auditorium’s stage has also been refinished this summer.
The stage at Lawhon was one of the first stages Presley ever sang on.
Presley attended Lawhon, which was then called East Tupelo Consolidated School, in the early 1940s until fifth grade.
According to Judy Schumpert at the Elvis Presley Birthplace, Presley’s time at Lawhon, and one teacher in particular, was instrumental in helping him pursue music as a young boy.
That teacher was Oleta Grimes, Schumpert said, who taught Presley in the fifth grade.
“She was not the only teacher he had at Lawhon, but the most prominent. He would visit with her when he came back to Tupelo,” Schumpert said. “She encouraged him so much, and that made an impact on him.”
Schumpert said it was Grimes who would encourage Presley to sing in school programs at Lawhon, and Grimes who entered Presley in his first talent competition at Children’s Day of the Mississippi-Alabama Dairy Show in 1945.
“That’s how he first got started in that kind of thing,” Schumpert said.
Kitchens said it is not uncommon to discover original architectural details, like the floors at Lawhon, during renovations of school buildings.
With schools like Lawhon, Milam Elementary and Church Street Elementary, TPSD works with the Mississippi Department of History and Archives to preserve the historical integrity of the buildings.
Kitchens said he likes preserving those details, so finding something like the auditorium floors in Lawhon is always exciting.