Schools of the Past, But Still With Us
by Susan Barlow

Where are the schools of yesteryear? In Manchester, some of them have taken on new uses, for example as the Senior Center and as an architect’s office.

Declining enrollment in the early 1970s resulted in too much school space, and across the United States many schools closed. Some were sold to private developers or non-profit organizations, while others saw new life in a concept of "adaptive re-use," which saves buildings for new purposes.

One of our handsomest former schools, at 1146 Main Street, became apartments for seniors when its use as part of the Bennet Junior High School complex was no longer needed. This four-story building, designed by architects Hartwell, Richardson & Driver of Boston (successor firm of architect H.H. Richardson), was dedicated as "the new high school" in 1904. Funded by the Cheney silk business, it cost $160,000 (including furnishings such as a chemistry lab and art room).

Much controversy surrounded the idea of converting it to affordable housing. Although it closed as a school in 1979, it wasn’t until 1983 that the senior-housing concept was approved. Republicans wanted the building sold, and then senior housing built off East Middle Turnpike, behind the Senior Center. Ted Cummings, Democratic Town Committee chairman, said in 1983 that he would support the Republicans’ low-income elderly housing plan if the Republicans would back the proposal to renovate the old high school. After press conferences and debate, the Bennet proposal was approved, and the apartment building is owned by the town and managed by a private contractor.

Lincoln Elementary School (1911-1972)

The former Lincoln School, at the intersection of Center and Main Streets, also sparked controversy. Beginning in the 1950s, some said that it was old and needed work; there weren’t enough students to justify the cost of revamping it; it was dangerously near the firehouse; and the playground was too small. Why not just build a new school with a big play area in Center Springs Park? Why not re-use the building for Town offices, which were in dire need of room? In 1966, with urban renewal matching funds possibly available, improvements to Lincoln School were being considered. (Federal urban renewal funds were for private development, but in some cases towns could obtain credit for part of their share of an urban renewal project – it was a matching-funds type of arrangement – for costs of construction of or additions to public buildings that served the renewal area, and in the case of schools, where at least ten percent of the students at the school lived in the urban renewal area. Manchester was able to benefit from this program in the expansion of Robertson School, which was located in the North End urban renewal area. The Downtown renewal project was rejected by voters in an October 1966 referendum, so this type of Federal funding for Lincoln School was a moot point.)

In a continuing controversy, many town residents objected to using six to sixteen acres of Center Springs Park for a school, playground, and parking lot. The Cheneys had given the land for a park, and even if the land weren’t entailed, does it make sense to use up park land when enrollment might be declining? In March, 1967, Mayor Nathan Agostinelli called a special meeting of the Board of Directors to discuss a school in the park, which the Board of Education favored and the Town Planning Commission opposed. The debates continued, with a 1967 proposal of just closing Lincoln School and transporting the students to schools in other parts of town.

As it turned out, Lincoln School did close, and was revamped as town offices with a handsome hearing room, where Board meetings and other activities take place. It’s a wonderful use of the building, and it always gives me a moment of nostalgia to walk up the stairs, where so many pupils’ feet have trod. Today’s Lincoln Center is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Buckland Elementary School (1922-1975)

Two former Buckland Schools – both wooden structures as was common in the eighteenth through early twentieth centuries – were replaced in 1922 by the substantial brick building still located at 1075 Tolland Turnpike. This building was expanded after it was built, as were many in Manchester, to accommodate a growing population. It seems that as soon as we accommodated that growing population by building and expanding, we ended up with too much school room. In the case of Buckland School, renovations were needed, and the declining enrollment didn’t justify the expense. The school closed about 1975, and the building was rented out by the town, including to a South Windsor church for its religious education. The Lutz Museum considered it as a site when it was bursting at the seams in the former Cheney School on Cedar Street. But the Town eventually sold the building, and it’s now the location of The Lawrence Associates, Architects and Planners. It’s still a handsome building, with a nearby baseball field, and not far from the mall.

Manchester Green Elementary School (1921-1978)

From 1751 to 1922, there were three successive schools at "The Green," the area of town where the stage coaches changed horses, and where our first post office was located. As was common in the 1700s, schools needed to be near centers of population, because there was no transportation for the youngsters to get to school. Typically, the schoolhouses were wooden, with one or two classrooms, usually with several (if not all) grades taught by one teacher. By 1869, Manchester had nine school districts, and it wasn’t until 1932 that these districts were consolidated and came under one Board of Education. (As an aside, today’s Eighth Utilities District, in the northern part of town, was originally the Eighth School District.)

In 1921, the "new" Manchester Green School opened. It was a brick school, built on a small hill, and eventually expanded. Today this building, at 549 East Middle Turnpike, serves as our Senior Center, having been phased out as a school in 1978.

    Webmaster's note: The first school at the Green was moved to a little street west of the Turnpike. On the left is a photo of 27 Cook Street, the former school, that I took in February 2012. Ray Gauthier and his family lived there in the 1950s. He said in a recent email, "The house was refurbished in the mid fifties by my folks. I believe the siding was asbestos and put on by them, the windows were also installed around 1955. The house had a dirt basement and stone foundation. The furnace was an oil burner and had only a "register" on the first floor with no heat upstairs except two small vents. My parents owned it and rented the right side....I believe it was built in the 19th century." A picture of it from then is on the right, which Bob Gauthier subsequently came across and forwarded to us. Along with the picture he wrote, "While going through some of my photos I stumbled upon this one of the original Green School. This is how it looked before they moved it to Cook Street and converted it to the house that I lived in. The basic house looks the same but they added two dormers to the roof and a couple windows on the second floor when they converted it. Based on how the house looked inside when I lived there, I would say that it was a 2 room schoolhouse and upstairs was most likely just attic space."

On the left is a photo of the Manchester Green School class of 1887, which Bob Gauthier later ran across. He writes, "This building was later moved to Cook Street when the new Brick School was opened in 1921. It became the house that I grew up in. Our living room was on the other side of the window on the right and my parents' bedroom was behind the window on the left. It's amazing how I can just close my eyes and visualize everything just the way it was nearly 60 years ago."

Nathan Hale Elementary School (1922-2012)

Nathan Hale Elementary School, located on Spruce St., was built in 1922 by the Cheney Brothers in Neo-Classical Revival Institutional style. It was closed in June, 2012, and its students were dispersed to other schools.

Because the closing was so recent (this was written in early September, 2012), we cannot report on any uses to which the school building will be put. And, the school's web site is no longer available.

For information on Nathan Hale, please click here.

South School (1922-1982)

The current building at 247 South Main Street is the second on this site. The first was a wooden structure, which E.L. Bidwell (1859-1932) speculates was built in the eighteenth century. In his memoirs, reprinted in a booklet available at the Manchester Historical Society, Bidwell says, "In 1751 several other school houses were erected and it is probable that the South or Fourth district school house was built at that time. Old residents claim that it has been the site of a school for over a century and as none of them remembers when the present building was erected, it is fair to infer that it was the original school house. Since my school days an L has been built on, a basement put under it and a heating plant installed. Aside from that the building remains as formally. Remove some of the paint and filler from the south outside wall and you will probably find carvings done by the pocket knives of several preceding generations.

"The square cupola in front with its four green sides attracted us at times and we often threw stones up in the top of it and occasionally a ball, and I judge that there must have been a hollow space inside as we often heard them drop down inside and possibly they are there yet. The stone step in front was used to whet our knives on and to sharpen our slate pencils.

"Slates were not considered unsanitary then and our health was not impaired even though we cleaned them by the simple process of spitting on them and rubbing them dry with our fists."

Bidwell goes on to say, "School taxes were collected differently then from the present way. Account was taken of the number of children a man sent to school, and of the number of days they attended and he was taxed on a pro rata basis. When my father served as committeeman I have often known him to ask me if certain children were present on certain days or if they were absent at certain times.

"The drinking water for the school was furnished by a pail and tin dipper kept on a bench in the entry. Generally two boys were delegated each day to keep the water pail full. As the neighbors disliked to have children around their wells we generally brought the water from the neighboring brook, and we enjoyed this task as it gave us an opportunity to search for turtle eggs, flag buds and other things."

In 1922, when the current building was erected, there was indoor plumbing as well as other modern amenities. This building was also expanded, and continued as a neighborhood school where youngsters walked back and forth from home, and often home for lunch as well. But eventually the space wasn’t needed, and the school closed about 1981. The Lutz Children’s Museum now occupies the space, which has been revamped on more than one occasion, and is a popular attraction both in our town and regionally.

Hop Brook (Bunce) School (1863-1950)

The first school in what would become Manchester was in the western part of town: the Hop Brook School, built in one day – Thanksgiving Day, 1751. It was replaced in 1863 by a wooden school across Olcott Street, and was in use as a public elementary school until September 1950, when Verplanck School opened. The building was later used by MARC, founded in 1952 by a group of parents whose children had disabilities. The town leased the building to MARC, known at the time as the Manchester Association of Retarded Children. The parents made repairs and did the maintenance, and in 1954, the Bunce Center for Retarded Children opened the first daycare center in Connecticut for children with disabilities in this school building. MARC moved to locations at various schools throughout Manchester, and has changed over the years to expand its services to all ages.

The school building was later leased by the town to other non-profit groups, but is not currently in use.

More schools and notes

In 1983, the town considered closing Highland Park School and finding another use for the building. Instead, the building lives on and will soon undergo a large-scale renovation.

Other schools, such as the Centennial School (also known as the Harding, Hollister Street and Bentley School) have been demolished. Next month, I’ll address this school as well as the Center and East Academies, and other schools that are no longer here. For schools that are currently in the education business, see our new web site feature, describing how each extant school got its name. Go to the Kids' Corner page in this web site and scroll down to "How Did Your School Get Its Name."

*Ed. Note: The former Cheney School is another one of Manchester's old school buildings that has been "re-purposed" and has lived on in several roles, including the Lutz Children's Museum and now the Old Manchester Museum. Find out more about the past lives of this school on our Old Manchester Museum page; and click here here to see a 1948 photo of the old Cheney School and read about the students and adults in the picture. Thanks to Alayne Murphy Gelletly for sending this photo and to her, Dick Jenkins, and others for naming most of the people in the photo. The Cheney School has since become the Old Manchester Museum.

Susan Barlow is a Director Emerita of the Manchester Historical Society, and also serves as its webmaster.