Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Central School Takes a Turn

The Central school - the "Old Agassiz." View from Burroughs street.

When I was a young sprout, the two Agassiz grammar schools sat on Burroughs street, just behind the buildings that fronted on Centre street. The building pictured above was called the "Old Agassiz," although the words Central School were carved above the door that faced the alley way known as Burroughs place that appears on the left. To the right, you can see the back of the so-called New Agassiz, which faced out towards Brewer street to the right.

Previous entries have discussed the two Agassiz schools. The construction of the New Agassiz was discussed here. My particular interest in this entry is the older building, shown above. The retirement of a long time teacher at the Old Agassiz/Central school was celebrated in an earlier entry here. Mrs. Mary Stuart began teaching at the Central school in 1866, so we know the school is at least that old. The roof line of the building shows elements of the Italianate style - a wide overhang, horizontal returns at the bottom of both sides, and the brackets under the eaves. This fits the 1866 date, but how much earlier might the school have been built?

I've found Boston school system documents that gave the construction dates of schools, but no dates were recorded for Jamaica plain schools built before the annexation of the town of West Roxbury to the city of Boston. The map below shows the two schools together on the grounds in 1896. The new, larger school had been built in 1892.

The Agassiz and Central schools, 1896 (Bromley - the Boston Atlas)


This layout remained the same until the schools were torn down after being replace by a new school between Child street and Carolina avenue in the 1970s. If we go back to 1885, we can see the old Central school sitting alone on the property, and in a different location than that shown above.

Central school - 1884 (G.W. Bromley - JP Historical Society)

To go back further, we need to take a trip to the Norfolk County Registry of Deeds (before annexation in 1874, the towns of Roxbury and West Roxbury were in Norfolk County). In February of 1849, the City of Roxbury purchased 33,300 square feet of land at the corner of Brewer and Burroughs streets from the Trustees of the Eliot school (a discussion of the earlier history of the land can be seen here). In two years, Jamaica Plain would secede from Roxbury and become part of the town of West Roxbury, and the school planned for the site would become a West Roxbury school. The first time I find the Central school mentioned in a deed is 1865, so the school was built some time between those two dates. I suspect an early date, because money would not have been available during the Civil War. That would make the school 100 years old when I attended it in the early 1960s. Did they recognize the centennial of the old school when it came around, or had the city of Boston forgotten the building's Roxbury birth? I suspect the latter.

Having done as well as I can with the date of construction, let's go back to the location of the Central school. Clearly, when the new Agassiz school was built, the old Central school was moved towards Centre street. Notice that in order to fit both school building at the site, the city of Boston had purchased land from Mrs. Joel Seaver, extending the lot towards Centre street. There is one more thing to notice here. See the little rectangular extension coming out of the side of the Central school? In the 1884 map directly above it faces up towards Brewer street. In the 1896 map, that extension faces down towards Centre street. When they moved the Central school to accommodate the new Agassiz school in 1892, they not only moved the Central school, they also turned it 90 degrees!

When I was a child, I was puzzled why the school entrance faced the back of the buildings that fronted on Centre street. A back alley hardly seemed an appropriate location for a school entrance. So why did they turn the Central school around? There is no mention of the Central school in the Boston Globe article that described the construction of the Agassiz. It is my considered speculation - that's a guess - that when the new Agassiz school was built, with its entrance on Brewer street, the old Central school was built, it was turned 180 degrees so that in case of fire in the new building, the Central school could be evacuated away from the fire. A look at the top picture shows that the fire escape of the Central school faced towards the Agassiz, but that was added during a fire safety movement after the Agassiz were built.

This entry was motivated by two questions. First, when was the Central school built. That's a standard sort of question for any building, and I tracked it down as well as I could. The position of the school is another matter. It was only with the online availability of the Bromley fire insurance maps that I was able to notice that the building seemed to have been turned around at some point. There is no mention of the Central school in the Boston Globe article announcing the new Agassiz school, but the available evidence certainly suggests that teams of horses were used to move the old school to make way for the new Agassiz, and to spin it 180 degrees at the same time. Imagine the people coming out to see their old Roxbury grammar school turned backwards to prepare for the construction of a new, improved Boston school. Both schools are gone now, and perhaps only those of us who remember them can be fascinated at the thought of that big brick building turning to face an alley-way, making way for for a new, "modern" building.


Addendum: Commenter "Anonymous" informs us of the following:

The Central School building was built by the City of Roxbury in 1849. In 1871 this building was remodelled and 2 rooms added. On Oct. 27, 1885 the Central School was renamed in honor of Louis Agassiz. The building was moved a short distance June 1892 for construction of the New Agassiz Grammar School.(Annual report of the City of Boston School Committee 1902)

I had assumed that the Central school didn't change names until the new Agassiz was built. The name comes from the scientist Louis Agassiz, who came from Switzerland to work at Harvard, and who gave public lectures at the old West Roxbury Village Hall, which sat very near the school on Thomas street. His daughter, Pauline Agassiz Shaw, lived across Jamaica Pond on Perkins street.

Addendum #2: from the Emancipator and Republican, January 26, 1849:

The new and commodious school house recently erected by the City of Roxbury, at the corner of Burroughs and Brewer streets, Jamaica Plain, for the Central School, was dedicated on Tuesday afternoon, January 16, with appropriate and interesting exercises.



Norfolk County deeds: 185:116 - 2/21/1849 Trustees of the Eliot School to the City of Roxbury.

1 comment:

  1. The Central School building was built by the City of Roxbury in 1849. In 1871 this building was remodelled and 2 rooms added. On Oct. 27, 1885 the Central School was renamed in honor of Louis Agassiz. The building was moved a short distance June 1892 for construction of the New Agassiz Grammar School.(Annual report of the City of Boston School Committee 1902)

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