Niagara Gazette

May 13, 2013

HIGGS: Niagara Falls High School in the early years

By Norma Higgs
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Since we are learning about city schools it is only fitting that we move on to the new Niagara Falls High School. The former building was completely destroyed by a fire in 1922 while construction of the annex was in progress. The building and equipment were considered a “total loss.” Insurance recovery was $378,379.24 and the replacement estimate, (without furnishings) was $644,929. School records including Regents’ examination papers and report cards were carried to Principal James F. Taylor’s nearby residence on 13th Street, much to the students’ dismay.

No time was lost in getting the students back to classes and getting the building back into its use. The entire city responded to the crisis with offers of emergency supplies of desks, chairs and other equipment. In less than one week all 1,200 students were back to class with most of them in the south end of the city. Some were at the Chamber of Commerce auditorium in the Masonic Temple, some at the YMCA, the YWCA and the First Baptist and First Presbyterian churches as well as St. Peter’s Guild House. Science class students attended school in the laboratory at the Niagara Alkali Company and basketball was played on the Acheson-Graphite Company court and at the State Armory on Main Street.

Fifth Street School housed the freshmen and night school classes. The office of Superintendent John B. Laidlow and some supervisory teachers went to Tenth Street School where night school classes were also held. Attendance actually increased, tardiness decreased in spite of the disadvantage of having to walk in all kinds of weather to and from various city buildings during the class day. (Maybe the kids today need a challenge to get them to stay in school.) For example, the school’s assembly programs were conducted at the Cataract Theater. In the fall of 1922, the freshmen and sophomores went to the new Maple Avenue Elementary School with classes divided into two sessions, in the morning from 8 a.m. until noon and in the afternoon from 1 to 5 p.m. Striking street car operators only added to the problems of the students walking to and from the Maple Avenue School. The High School Annex was completed in January of 1923 and was utilized for some junior and senior classes. South Junior High School was opened in September of 1923 which filled the gap for the remaining students. This tragic fire saw the last of the horse drawn fire apparatus as in 1923, the Tenth Street Fire Hall ended the era with the motorization of its fire hall equipment.

The design of the new school was considered one of the finest high school buildings in the state. Every modern convenience was provided. William B. Ittner of St. Louis was the consulting engineer and Simon Larke and C. F. Obenhack of Architectural Associates worked together on the project. Laur and Mack was the low bidder and received the contract in February of 1923. The contents of the 1902 box of memorabilia were placed in the cornerstone at the ceremony on July 24, 1923 along with a complete description of the fire. Included in the memorabilia from 1902 was the following letter written by Dr. Thomas B. Lowell:

“This box was deposited in this stone on the afternoon of Nov. 26, 1902 by Thomas Bailey Lowell, principal of the high school in the presence of the Board of Education, the officers and teachers of the school and three hundred high school students. Remarks were made by Superintendent R. A. Taylor, Principal Lowell, and Eugene Cary, Member of the board. The following songs were sung: “America”, “Star Spangled Banner”, “Red, White and Blue” and a song for the occasion, “Come Classmates.” The weather is fair, and tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day. The names of the cards in this box are the names of the students of the Niagara Falls High School.”

During the construction, a system of monitors was established to keep watch at all entrances including the windows.

On Sept. 21, 1923, Billy Sunday preached at the Tabernacle and was heard by 500 students from NFHS. According to Wikipedia, William Ashley “Billy” Sunday (Nov. 19, 1862 – Nov. 6, 1935) was an American athlete who, after being a popular outfielder in baseball’s National League during the 1880s, became the most celebrated and influential American evangelist during the first two decades of the 20th century.

The Tabernacle was an open field where the Haeberle Plaza sits today where evangelists held a six-week campaign in mid-September. They built a 234 foot long tabernacle to accommodate upwards of 6,000 people who would come for the religious services. After the campaign ended, the contractor used the salvaged lumber of the tabernacle to build concrete forms for the construction of the Hotel Niagara.” (Images of America Niagara Falls 1850-2000).

The new school opened in September of 1924. Dr. James F. Taylor was principal. The three- and four-story brick building held 72 classrooms, an auditorium, gymnasium and swimming pool. Costs including land, building and equipment amounted to $1,258,201.01 and another addition was added in 1970 at a cost of $32,300.00. The new school was constructed in the Classic Revival Style popular during 1923-1924.

Next week more history of this “grand old lady.”

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