The Ghost of New Rochelle High School

New Rochelle High School

Referencing New Rochelle’s French heritage, New Rochelle High School was rendered in a French Gothic style infused with provincial chateau elements.

My first exposure to New Rochelle High School was a series of photographs in a 1932 article on school architecture written by James Betelle. While I had been pretty familiar with the traditional English Gothic and Neo-Classical designs of his schools, this one stood out as unique; it had a style unlike any other. Towers, dormers, finials and ornate sculptural details combined to create an edifice almost implausibly grand for a public high school. I had to see it.

Recently I arranged for a tour with a New Rochelle town official. She, along with NRHS’s Principal, were interested in my research into the school’s history–a sad chapter in its past had meant the loss of much archival information, so hopefully I could teach as much as learn.

My first stop was New Rochelle Town Hall, where I was granted access to an 8-foot tall file cabinet stuffed with plans and blueprints. Most of the material dated from the mid 50’s and on. In one drawer I did find an original Guilbert & Betelle blueprint, but it was in poor condition.

NRHS Rendering

Woodrow Wilson was the original name for the school, but a scandal erupted in 1926 when it was rejected by a new school board, which favored calling it New Rochelle. A plaque in the front hall dedicating the school to Wilson was created as a concession.

The most interesting find was a series of early renderings and floor plans of the school. In these drawings, the overall proportions are the same, but the clock tower details are a bit different, featuring larger windows with elaborate Gothic tracery. More importantly, they give a better sense of what the original structure looked like before the complex maze of additions were added.

NRHS from Lake Huguenot

New Rochelle High School viewed from Lake Huguenot. The lake was originally an ice pond, and more recently was reconfigured to accommodate athletic fields.

Unlike most suburban schools, which tend to be crammed in densely populated town centers, NRHS is situated at the rear of a massive plot, fronted by the man-made Lake Huguenot and public park space. When I first drove up to the property, I was taken by air of civility this arrangement presented.

The myriad additions to the school are mostly in the rear of the building, which helps it maintain the classical profile. As I made my way closer to the school, however, a curious feature came into focus.

NRHS main path.
In front of the building, where once was a landscaped lawn and curved driveway now sits a semi-circular addition. It’s nearly impossible to see from the street because it’s built partially below grade with an earth-mound formed in the front as a means to obscure it. The roof of this structure is an open plaza, with a straight path leading to the main entrance.

NRHS front

The towers of NRHS poking up from behind the earth-mound. This addition is reminiscent of prehistoric long barrows.

The plaza is a slab of angles rendered in concrete. It’s a rather barren and uninviting space, and has the effect of diminishing and isolating the once focal entrance, reducing it to almost an afterthought. That you have to go up a set of steps to enter the front doors, but down a flight to get to the side tower doors is disconcerting.

NRHS Main Entrance
Nevertheless, the plaza is a good location to comfortably view the details of the facade. In keeping with the French Gothic aesthetic, Betelle used an ogee arch motif over most door and windows. The central clock tower is the most ornate, with stacked reliefs of monkeys, owls and other wildlife adorning the window treatment. The tower pediment railing is decorated with seashells and fleur de lis, protected by surly gargoyles.

~

New Rochelle High School FireApproximately 7am on the morning of May 17th, 1968, a disturbed student set fire to the school. Students, teachers and others stood on the lawn staring at the conflagration, stunned by the mass of flames and smoke. The fire raged until being doused about 2pm, but it simmered for days. The blaze completely gutted the original building. 40 years later, it is still a sharp memory to witnesses I spoke with.

Amazingly, most of the main facade was spared. The brickwork, copper and carved stone details appear to be in excellent condition. The beauty of the facade is tempered the moment you step through the front doors, however; nothing remains of the original interior. It is an entirely modern structure, hastily built after the fire to get its 3,000 students back into the building.

The transition from red buff brick and cut limestone to cinderblocks and steel is jarring; you immediately feel the scope of the loss. From within the building, the stately facade suddenly feels like a Hollywood backlot set–a beautiful exterior masking a utilitarian interior.

Entrance Comparison

NRHS’s main entrance, as seen in 1929 and 2007. Note the ground level was raised to accommodate the front addition. The original doors and windows were lost in the fire of 1968.

New Rochelle High School AuditoriumAnother loss to the fire was the original auditorium. Designed to be accessible to the community (as many were at the time), it featured a handsome entrance with carved detailing similar to the front doors. This is the only photo of it I have found, but an early rendering gives a sense of what that facade looked like in context.

NRHS was actually constructed in two phases. The first, completed in 1926, comprised the bulk of the finished school, but the front facade was only the middle portion with the clock tower. The two wings containing the side towers were added in 1931. These additions were part of the original plan, and as such blend near seamlessly with the original structure.

A curiously modern element are the large shed dormers. The second floor of the wings were double-height rooms for music and art, so the windows provided valuable natural light. Another interesting feature are the windowless oriels that were probably intended for recessed performance platforms.

NRHS left wing

One of the 1931 additions. The decoration on the left-hand window enforces the French Gothic motif. Copper gutters following the curvature of the downspout is another nice detail.

I wandered the grounds for a while, taking lots of pictures, but the sad truth is, there wasn’t much beyond the front facade to study. Nearly everything else of the exterior was either lost to the fire or simply demolished to accommodate additions (a few tantalizing bits do peek out).

While I lament not being able to walk the original halls or see what surely was a grand auditorium, what remains of Betelle’s New Rochelle High School has been treated well and continues to sit proudly on Lake Huguenot. I’m glad I saw it.

~~~

Additional photographs can be found at my Flickr page.
 
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59 Responses to The Ghost of New Rochelle High School

  1. Bill Di Dio says:

    I can remember this sad day like it was yesterday…I had graduated from NRHS in ’66 and was catching up on the local news through the Standard Star newspaper. In Vietnam back in those days, we didn’t have the luxury of the Internet or cell phones, so getting hometown news was ususally about a week late. It was just another piece of miserable news in a year that has haunted me for the rest of my life.

  2. AGF says:

    Wonderful important piece! Time still erases the ability to reconstruct the past. Glad to have someone so talented trying to put things together before they are lost forever.

    I was a student at Roosevelt Elementary School at the time. A Classmate told us that the high school was on fire. Nobody believed him until we went outside and, from the multi-tiered back of the elementary school we could see plumes of smoke. It was a horrible day. Most of us had experienced the fire in Roosevelt. I’ll never forget the sight of Dr. Mason opening the fire doors to the stair case revealing smoke behind her. Those memories were fresh as we watched the smoke fill the sky.

  3. Laura Fullman says:

    Wow, this was quite a phenomenal read. My father was a graduate of NRHS 69′ so he told me the story of the fire and now he had to go to Albert Leonard Middle School. It’s astonishing to see the architecture of the building before and how nicely it was built back. It’s kind of sad that the original building couldn’t be to this day but at least the new design is quite identical. Great read, I’ll have to share this article with my dad!

  4. Fran Delfico says:

    I graduated in 1975 from NRHS. My brother was in NRHS at the time of the fire. I too remember going with my parents and seeing the fire. It was horrible. I remember it like it was yesterday. NRHS is one of the most beautiful schools I have ever seen. I have been to other high school in local cities and you can’t compare. The kids in NRHS should visit other local high schools to appreciate the beautiful and well kept school they are in. I am PROUD to say I attended NRHS.

  5. Michele Colabella (Easton) says:

    I graduated from New Rochelle High School in 1976. Still very proud to have been a part of the school. Every time I visit New Rochelle (now a Florida resident), you will always find me walking the school campus. M

  6. Carol Wood says:

    Thanks for the pictures and article. I like your comment about it being like a Hollywood set now (……or a Potemkin Village)
    Definately NOT the school I graduated from in ’64.

  7. Linda Rodman Forman says:

    Thanks for re-posting. I take great pride in being a NRHS alum. Class of ’72. My dad, Walter,graduated in ’42 and my uncles, Harold and Jerry, before that although I think that the h.s. was actually located where today’s City Hall is situated. Uncle Jerry was a big jock and my dad played in the band with Director Harry Haigh. Maggie Weinstein taught them and was a favorite teacher of theirs even though she terrorized my sister and me! And probably my cousins too- classes of ’62’ ’67 and ’70. Fond memories of fireworks as a child and many happy memories. Long live the Class of ’72! …. Linda

  8. Ellen Kachalsky says:

    Like Jeff Krieger, I remember watching the fire from Albert Leonard; the smoke and flames could be seen that far away, and then the next year we had split session, the portable classrooms taking up the track and field in the back, and the new underground library up front. Since I walked from my home on Elk Avenue, I came up to the front door on the walkway between the twin lakes. I loved that view!

  9. Arthur Librett says:

    just one correction at this time….the lakes remain and the athletic fields are still in the rear of the school.

  10. Joel Feinberg says:

    The individual who burned the high school down, also burnt down the Jewish Community Center, in downtown Yonkers. I believe that their were thirteen deaths, from that fire.

  11. Arthur – A chunk of the lake was filled-in in front of the school to accomodate two new athletic fields.

  12. Riki Evans says:

    I graduated NRHS in 1067, the last raduating class of the original building. Ice skating every winter on te two front lajes, July 4th fireworks over the lakes and the sight of the school along the main road was always awesome, especially to guests who always asked, “who lives there!” The fire made front page news in the Charleston, West Virginia newspaper. I was in shock abd tears for ages.

  13. Angela Lore Barone says:

    Love these old photo’s. I remember the fire. my husband and I just returned from spending 6 months in Savannah,Ga. He was stationed there after his tour of duty in Vietnam.When were returned to New Rochelle the fire was in progress. We both graduated in 1962 I remember I didn’t want to leave NRHS loved my 3 years there.

  14. Andy B says:

    I graduated NRHS 1965, was overseas when I heard of The fire in 68. The first place I stopped at when I returned home, was The burned school. Sad to see.

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