Niagara Gazette

October 7, 2013

HIGGS: 39th Street School -- here today, gone tomorrow

By Norma Higgs
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Well I was too late with this one. You can’t even drive by to see what I was writing about. It’s gone. More about that later. Let’s go back to the beginning.

According to my major research source, Patricia Wilson Rice in her Niagara Falls Centennial Year publication “School Bells Ring,” “the 39th Street School, opened on Feb. 14, 1955, but the administration learned a month later that it was located in the direct path of the proposed power canal.”

The Niagara Gazette wrote on March 15, 1955: “Even though it is barely finished, the new 39th Street School may be doomed for the scrap heap. The $811,000 elementary school, which opened its doors to 400 youngsters in mid-February while carpenters were still at work in the south wing, sits directly in the path of the projected power canal.”

The board of education got right to work and with the combined efforts of the Parent Education Group of 39th and Sugar Street Schools, the plan for the open-cut canal was reversed. A twin tunnel plan was recommended to Congress by the Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors.

This school was one of three buildings opened to alleviate overcrowding and double sessions in the city’s elementary schools. The other two — 66th Street and 99th Street were not affected by the canal. Many of the students at the new 39th Street school were transferred from Sugar Street School on Hyde Park Boulevard.

A special referendum was held in May of 1953 asking voters to approve a bond issue in the amount of $2,773 for the construction of these three schools. Each would bear the street name where it is situated. This one-story school building was modern in design and located at 39th Street between Walnut and Ferry avenues.

Construction was tan brick with corrugated plastic used instead of glass as it permits full light without glare. The building was 810 feet long, 300 feet wide and 13 feet high. Inside was an auditorium, gymnasium, a library, a multi-purpose room, a craft room, principal’s office, a faculty room, a health office, a physical education office, a coal storage room and restrooms. There was a shelter in the basement and the play area faced 40th Street. School lockers were built into the main corridors. Parking was available near Ferry Avenue. All of this was designed by Obenhack, Larke and Elia.

There were serious concerns about voter apathy toward the approaching school election that year as it was the first time that members of the school board would be elected by the people. Three seats were open by members leaving due to expiration of their term. Up to that year members had been appointed by the mayor.

As mentioned above the vote on the granting of authority to the board of education to issue bonds to finance construction of the three above mentioned schools was also on the ballot. Another item was the financing of $500,000 for the reconstruction of the lighting and electrical systems of 33 existing schools. Citizens were urged to participate and organizations were asked to stimulate discussion to arouse interest in these matters. R. William J. Small, superintendent of Schools warned if the referendum did not pass, some schools would go to half-days the following year. Plans had already been made for 79th Street School, Evershed School, Sugar Street School and part of 93rd Street School.

Dr. Small state that “the time has come when schools cannot be isolated. We don’t realize the real value of education but our founders felt that education was basic to our type of democracy.” He revealed a survey conducted by an economist from New York University in 1945 under the auspices of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which revealed that where there are good schools, there was good business. The chamber was so convinced it published a pamphlet titled “Education – An Investment in People.”

Dr. Small traced the need for more schools to an increase in enrollment due to the high birth rate beginning in 1947 (baby boomers) especially in the LaSalle area where there was a shift in population over the past 10 years.

The first principal of 39th Street School was Mrs. Victoria Polley. When the building closed in 1982, Mrs. Ann Hodge was principal. The former school was sold to Treasure Knit, Inc. for $346,000 for use as a light manufacturing facility with warehouse space.

The Gazette in an Aug. 9 article by Timothy Chipp tells us that “Treasure Knit ceased operations in 1984, abandoning the building which quickly fell victim to vandalism.” The city took it over through tax foreclosure. State officials tried to turn its fortune around in 2009 and approved roughly $6.3 million from a state grant program as part of a proposal to turn it and the old Hyde Park Boulevard public safety complex into senior citizen housing and assisted living facilities. Control reverted back to the city when the company behind the renovations never completed the project.

The city decided to pursue remediation and removal and say the site is being cleaned up for future development. Apparently the county is footing the bill for the demolition and removal expected to cost between $200,000 and $450,000 depending on the amount of cleanup needed at the site according to Interim Code Enforcement Director Dennis Virtuoso. C’est la vie.

Norma Higgs serves with the Niagara Beautification Commission and Niagara Falls Block Club Council.

Norma Higgs serves with the Niagara Beautification Commission and Niagara Falls Block Club Council.