Niagara Gazette

March 11, 2013

HIGGS: Back to our landmark schools

By Norma Higgs
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Before we head back to school, I learned from a former high school classmate, Jean Saracini Caprio that she attended Third Street School during 3rd and 4th grades as she lived at 229 Third St. at the time.

The school building was later occupied by the Niagara County Community College as its administrative offices during the 1970s before its demolition. The college itself was located in the former Shredded Wheat building. Her mother, Philomena Scrufari attended Whitney Avenue School and so did her Uncle Bruno. Their father and Jean’s grandfather was Bruno Sr. who emigrated from Calabria. As a teen he went to Austria to learn the stone mason trade and worked on the Holy Trinity complex in Niagara Falls among many other of our historic buildings. He was the founder of the Scrufari Construction Company. Jean and I see each other occasionally, usually at informal high school reunion gatherings.

On to Center Avenue School which was located at the corner of Highland, in the city’s old Fourth Ward. It was a two-story brick building with 16 classrooms. It opened in 1898 to ease the overcrowding at the Cleveland Avenue School as population increased in the North End. The design was named the “Pan American” and was chosen from nine other plans. W. H. Orchard was the architect and the building featured a very distinctive roof design. Just before the new school opened a law was passed making it compulsory that parents and guardians were obligated to send their children to school. It was titled the Compulsory School Attendance Law and it was the beginning of the truant officer as the enforcer of this landmark law. Obviously attendance increased at all schools. Miss A. Mary Shellington was the first principal and the school served the population until the late 1960’s. James Showers was principal when it closed in 1968.

The original cost including land, building and equipment and an addition built in 1925 was $225,258.83 and it was sold for $5,100 and used as a community center.

Ken Hamilton told me that in the late 1970s and early 1980s the center was called Friendship House and was later sold to Cecil Perkins. I have known Cecil for many years and he was one of the first black members of the Niagara County Legislature. Ken reminded me of that and also that Joe Profit was on the Niagara County Board of Supervisors, a precursor of the Legislature. Cecil operated the former school as a nightclub but his time and duty as a legislator took its toll and the business closed after a couple of years. It sat idle after that, and around 1990 the last event that took place there was the Demolition Ball. Ken did not attend Center Avenue School; he attended kindergarten as the only “black kid” in his Maple Avenue class and then he went to Beech Avenue School.

My research is basically a book authored by Priscilla Wilson Rice who apparently had access to Board of Education archives as I found an interesting item about the McKoon Avenue School which was opened in September 1899 in the DeVeaux area in a house owned by Judge J. D. McKoon. This brick veneer two-story house was located on what is now McKoon Avenue at the bend in the roadway. It was, in fact, a one-room schoolhouse rented by the Board of Education with Ellen N. Brown as the teacher. It was used until September of 1908, when the original Maple Avenue School was built on the northwest corner of Maple Avenue and Whitney Street (now McKoon Avenue). Lottie A. Myers was the first principal. It was originally a two-room schoolhouse but an addition in 1919 enlarged its classrooms to four. The cost including land, building and addition was $18,350.00. Population grew in this area and a much larger school was needed and built in 1922.

Cost for the 13 classroom new school was much higher and including land, building and equipment and two temporary classrooms and new stairwells totaled $416,603.68. To its credit it is considered an imposing structure and the bell in the tower was the one formerly used in the frame school. When fire struck the Niagara Falls High School in January 1922, some of its classes were diverted to Maple Avenue School and some of its events were held in the Maple Avenue School gym. Miss Sara Johnston was the first principal of the new school.

Staying with schools with beginnings in the 1800s we now learn about the Suspension Bridge Union School. Opened in 1872, Professor Browning was the first principal. The school was located at Cleveland Avenue and 13th Street and the name was changed to Cleveland Avenue School following the city’s incorporation on March 17, 1892. After this, the population exploded and an addition was added to the school but space was still a problem. Students attended in grades one through eight and more construction followed. Costs, including 2 acres of land and the building were $16,675.00 and the 1890’s addition cost $18,645.00. That helped until the early 1920s when it was decided to replace the old building. The school was closed during June 1923 and all classes were moved to the new North Junior High School. The old school was demolished in 1924 when the new school was built in the same year.

Stay tuned — we are getting “an education.”

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.