Regarding the Maple Avenue School’s fate

| 19 Jan 2024 | 04:22

The 1935 Maple Avenue School’s fate will soon again be before Chester residents. Before long another referendum is to be presented to voters by our board of education as to the fate of the National Register-eligible Art Deco school building.

Will it meet a tragic end that clearly demonstrates that the powers that be are oblivious to the importance and value of one of the most architecturally significant historic structures in our community?

In October of 1935, in the fifth year of The Great Depression, Chester residents voted overwhelmingly, 308 to 35, their approval of building a $232,000 new school (more than ⅔ of voters cast their votes). A school building that then and still now gives character to our village.

At first glance, this Art Deco local landmark appears as a large yellow monolith. But with its yellow brick facade, stone-coped parapets, linear bands of windows, decorative cast stone detailing, chamfered corners and distinctive clock tower, you will notice many of the Art Deco (also known as “style Moderne”) features: color (yellow), abstract geometric patterns ( the checkerboard bands above the auditorium windows), the cast stone embellishments and stylized decorative grillwork.

Gothic influence can be seen in the clock tower with its spire, the fantastic bronze light fixture to the left of the main entrance, the strong verticals created by the brick piers flanking the windows. The flat roof and monolithic appearance embody the Art Deco style.

Embellished tower-like constructs accentuate the chamfered corners; the wonderful offset clocktower is embellished on its four corners with owls which represent wisdom, intellect and scholarly pursuits; the owl’s ability to see in darkness signifies enlightened minds’ capacity to navigate through ignorance and uncover truth.

I have done extensive research on Robert Russell Graham of Middletown, architect of the Maple Avenue School. He was the supervising architect for the construction of 40 schools in New York, among them Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School in Hyde Park, NY, which won for him the praise of the president. The Hyde Park school is listed on the Nation Register of Historic Places. Graham also designed Maple Avenue School’s sister school, Twin Towers High School in Middletown, as well as schools at Ellenville, Goshen, and Pine Island and Southfields in our area. In 1940 he was appointed to the National Advisory Council on School Buildings as one of 10 leading school architects in the nation.

The Maple Avenue School was determined to be National Register-eligible in 2004. The statement of significance from the Cultural Resource Information System (CRIS) website of the New York Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation is as follows:

“Built in 1935, the Chester Junior/Senior High School is eligible for listing on the State and National Registers of Historic Places as an intact example of Art Deco-inspired institutional architecture. Constructed of a yellow-hued brick with cast stone detailing, the building combines Art Deco detailing with Gothic motives and retains a considerable amount of its original character-defining features. The school’s design represents a distinctive and unusual approach to educational design from this period and is largely intact, based on the information submitted, to the initial 1935 building campaign.”

It is a local landmark beloved by many current and former residents. Thoughts expressed as part of the recent survey conducted by CUFSD Board of Education showed that a community use for the school was a high priority for many residents. Listing the Maple Avenue School on the National Register of Historic Places would open up many sources of funding for returning the building to reuse from grants and other programs.

In 2021, I requested the 2015 Building Condition Survey from the school district. Nothing within it indicated that the building is anything but solid. Repairs, though costly, could yield a remarkable community-use building. I desperately hope that we value this historic gem enough to save it from the wrecking ball.

Thank you for your attention to this important issue. Remember, demolition is forever.

Leslie Smith