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.

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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. Very informative article, kept my interest. The 3 years I spent there, (9th grade in 1979 was in Isaac young Jr high) held many fond memories of friends near and far. Thank you for the history lesson about the building.

  2. perrotti, Thomas Sr. says:

    Fine Article…As a lead Detective brought back many memories, and long hours worked on the fire investigation. Ending for the purp was tragic.

  3. Wendy Segal Greene says:

    Wow..that really brought back memories..I was an alumna of NRHS, circa 1946 – egads!! The twin lakes were precious to all of us – so were many of the teachers (i.e Harry Haigh – band and orchestra,) “Pop” Burke – drama,) Loretta Coons (VP) etc.

    We did not attend Albert Leonard (where my mom, Anne Kahan Segal) had been PTA prez during my sister’s time there. Instead we all satyed in our elementary schools for 7th (yea Daniel Webster and Mrs. Flaherty (sp.?) who’s husband taught Spanish at NRHS.)

    Incidentally, Mr. Praete, was your dad (or mebbe, grandpop?!)Arthur?? Our HS class..

    It was a wonderful trip – miss the twin lakes where my eldest son, as a 2 year old was pulled on aa sled while I skated – the other two missed out) but am so grateful to the wonderful Dee Danielson who forwarded this to me….ah, memories!

  4. Harold Crocker says:

    Adding to what Barry D. Hargan stated so vividly above, I was also in the building that morning in the breakfast program downstairs in the kitchen area, where my mom was the cafeteria director. If you remember, we were already on split shifts due to the new construction. (Do you remember the portable classrooms on McKenna field, and our games were played at IEYJHS for a couple of years?)Pete Caputo and Frank Agresta were there when the alarm went off at around 7:20 am. We had a number of alarms previously including the one the day before. I ran out to see where they were headed, but was chased out the front door near the offices. The main fire was set in the construction area above the cafeteria on the library side, next to the elevator shaft that was under construction, This is where it spread up directly to the roof area and continued to spread. My locker was also under the auditorium and when it collapsed I lost everything that day, all my books, regents notes etc., as did many of our classmates. I remember the efforts of all the staff and firemen as they tried desperatly to stop the fire and remove valuable records and equipment from the school that day. It was one of the saddest moments of our lives.

    We did have the week off, as schools were reorganized and split sessions instituted in the jr high schools, and the person responsible was caught starting up a fire at Albert Leonard. (if I remember, there was a plant from the police academy disguised as a new student that followed the suspect around)

    I was fortunate enough to come back to NRHS to teach and coach, and there was a special clock on the wall in the main office with the time that the fire alarm went off, which reminded everyone of that sad day.
    The rebuilt high school with the new additions is still one of the most beautiful schools in the US.
    Thank you for the article and the responses.

  5. Rich Santoro says:

    I graduated in 1975. I also remember the fire too. In fact, I watched the school burn with my mother from across the street by Forest Ave. So sad. Yeah, even to this day, I brag about the beauty of that building. A Masterpiece if you ask me. I still have my yearbook….The Very first two pages is NRHS in the day time and the very last two pages is it at night. Breathtaking!!

    Thanks for sharing your photos. I really enjoyed them.

  6. Unknown says:

    I got to nrhs now, 2009. The years I’ve been here it’s been discusting and unkept. Full of drugs, violence, cutters, pregnant people, everything. Some school..

  7. E. Backstrom says:

    Interesting article. My mother graduated from NHRS in 1951. As a kid I remember my folks driving around the wrecked building after the fire. My mother was upset about the fire. Years later as a former draftsman, I “practiced” visualization on the few photos that my mother had. Your web site showed me that I had come close. By the way, you have two photos of the fabled auditorium. The traditional one in the inset on the start page, and the one from 1928 of the Scholarship Club on your flickr page. They’re standing on the steps of the “public” entrance.

  8. Joseph Summo says:

    Only the auditorium and third floor of the building was lost in the 1968 fire. The basement and first floors were just renivated. I had seen the original walls behind new brick when the building was renivated again in the early 90’s

  9. Burton Evans Jolley, Jr. says:

    I have seen this article before but probably not in its entirety. On this occasion I took the time to read it thoroughly and notice each of the comments that followed. I graduated in 1951 with a sensationally honored class and am very proud of them and our school. I lived closer than anyone has ever lived to the school, directly across Clove Rd. from the auditorium. The public entrance was to our right and the several side doors opened on to a grassy area in front of my house. I never saw the school after graduation until after the millennium when we were kindly allowed to revisit our original house. I was astonished to see the changes in the landscaping, new buildings, roadways and athletic fields. It sure was different from those fences we as Junior Highers used to hop to see the Purple Wave play football. I was there when the three high schools merged and actually did all my five years there at NHRS. I so remember the Senior Court, the winter wooden outside grey running track, the 2 cent, mostly horror, movies shown at lunch time and all of those fairly unique high school sororities and fraternities we had. I know from some book collections of graduates, that many folks have always remained in that wonderful school district but don’t forget that those of us who have travelled near and far still have the fondest memories and were equally as hurt by the damage that demented soul forced upon us all.

  10. Susan Klein says:

    NRHS Class of ’72 graduate here; another voice added those above who watched the fire of 1968 from the hill behind Albert Leonard as a 9th grader. Split sessions and classes in the cold portables followed for 10th and 11th grade; as I recall, classes did not begin for 10th grade until the afternoon, which made for some lovely sleeping-in (great for teenagers), doing homework in the mornings, and watching daytime t.v. before school. The fire was undoubtedly traumatizing as we all seem to have such vivid memories. Thanks for the interest on the architecture, and the post.

  11. Juan Ayala says:

    I only went to NRHS for my freshmen year. I am recently in Texas but the schools here can’t be compared to NRHS. This is a beautiful school and I am very glad to be apart of it. I hope i live to see that school more time.

  12. Michael Rones says:

    I graduated from NRHS in 1979. I was in Roosevelt Elementary in that yr 1968 and I remembered taking the school bus up North Avenue and passing the highschool and seeing parts of the school all burnt up.

  13. maxgames.me says:

    remember the fire very well.

  14. Glen Fosina says:

    I was in the class of 1983 grew up across the Street on Parcot Ave , My Mom Stated that our clothes on the clothes line in the back yard were black from the heavy smoke from the fire. I was and still very proud to say I attended such a great school with excellent Teachers ( My friend and neighbor Bobby Pendorf RIP) and Fred Todora ,Coaches/ teachers Crocker,Yacone, Kiernan, Cap , Damico, Bailey and the best Asst. Principle/Councilmen Don ZACCAGNINO Mr. Zack as we called him ,Mr. Jay Sommer was National Teacher of the year even though I never had him.

  15. Linda Peterson Wollowitz says:

    So pleased to see the photographs of the school that I knew and loved. As a 1959 graduate I was privileged to be part of all its beauty and when I returned to our 50th anniversary party, it was a shock to witness the changes. Not the beautiful school of my lifetime.

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