By Norma Higgs
Niagara Gazette — One of the portage routes around the Falls in the very early history of our area became known as the “sugar route.” Boats were unloaded in the upper Niagara River and bags of sugar and other staples were carried along a pathway which ultimately ended in the area of the Lower Niagara River. As sometimes happens even today, the bags would split and sugar would spill along the pathway. The route became formally known as Sugar Street until Charles B. Hyde, the owner of a paper company, passed away following a stroke in 1921.
When Mr. Hyde sold his paper company he purchased a large tract of land on the outskirts of the city. These 316 acres in his estate was located just east of Sugar Street and were left to the City of Niagara Falls. His will stipulated that the land be a park in his name and a memorial be erected in his honor. Additional lands were acquired over time and Harris & Hall, Landscape Architects and Engineers of Buffalo prepared a master plan for the park and work began in 1925. Hyde Park is the largest city park in New York state outside of Central Park in Manhattan. Eventually the old “sugar route” became known as Hyde Park Boulevard.
As often happens when telling a tale, I get off the intended subject which is the Sugar Street School (1896-1959). According to research compiled and written by Patricia Wilson Rice in 1991, the school was designed by architect J. Elmer Passage and built in 1896. Located at 298 Sugar St. at the corner of “D” Street in Echota, this school was the first school constructed after the city was incorporated as Niagara Falls in 1892.
The first school principal was Miss Katherine F. Hanrahan who held this position for many years. The three-story brick building had eight classrooms and was built at a total cost of $80,990.30 which included the land, building and equipment. The school was threatened with closure in 1948 as the Board of Education determined it to be unsafe but the parents requested it be remodeled. The two 82-foot towers were removed as well as the pitched roof and were replaced with a flat roof. A new oil burning furnace (the first ever in a city school building) was also installed and this effort added another $60,161 to the cost.
Nothing could save the building in 1959 as it was now considered a fire hazard and the Board of Education voted to close the school. The doors remained closed following the Christmas recess and the students were transferred to other city schools when school resumed in January. Niagara Falls attorney John DelMonte attended Sugar Street School in its final year. He was in kindergarten and lived on 37th Street near Church Street. He remembers walking to school with his mother and even occasionally on his own. No fear in those sensible days. The Cold War was during this time and he also remembers the “duck and cover” drills. The family moved to Jerauld Avenue the following year and he continued his elementary education at Hyde Park School.
The property was sold for $28,000 to Armand Cerrone in 1960. The school was demolished and The Consumer Foods Outlet (Tripi Foods) operated there for several years. Currently the property is owned by Micbarcer Realty Company and occupied by World Discounts.
Sometimes not everything works the way we would like. As the Board of Education continued to divest itself of unsafe and unneeded school properties, some were demolished and new private construction utilized the vacant lot and some building were renovated into something new and necessary as we shall see in future articles.
Sometimes it did not work too well as is the case with the Whitney Avenue School (1898-1976). Located on the corner of 18th Street and Whitney Avenue at 1310 18th St. in the city’s North End, this two-story brick school was opened in 1898 as population increased considerably in this area. The architect was George W. Wright and he kept the design simple compared to the other schools built during this period. No bell towers and other ornamentation here but there was sufficient room for 12 classrooms. Miss Norma Osgood was the first principal.
Things changed population wise and in 1938 the Board of Education voted to close the school as enrollment decreased. The last principal was Miss Mary D. Hiller who served for over 25 years. The building became a storage facility until 1946 when it reopened for adult education classes.
A fire destroyed part of the building on March 14, 1950, but it was rebuilt and opened again in 1952 thanks to a donation of $30,000 from the William Wallace and Clara Greenly Kincaid Education Foundation. All told, over the years the cost of this school was $103,046.48.
In 1976 the building was sold for $42,210.00 and was converted to apartments. Recent years have not been good for the former Whitney Avenue School. From 1998 following ownership of James Strassburg, the building changed hands several times with the selling price increasing dramatically from $265,000 to $450,000 in 2004. Following another fire in 2007, it was transferred to new owners for $1. In 2012, the city took it over in rem and remains the current owner. The building sits empty and forlorn and the future does not look very bright.Norma Higgs serves with the Niagara Beautification Commission and Niagara Falls Block Club Council.