Columbia High School: Birth of a Building

I’m used to seeing old photographs of schools when they were new and pristine, set against the barren terrain that is indicative of fresh construction. And as my recent tour of Newark showed, it makes for an interesting contrast with contemporary images, where the landscape is overgrown and the school itself may be in various stages of decay. But what about the first stages of life?

A great find I made was a series of construction photographs taken of Columbia High School over a roughly three-year period, from 1925 until 1927 when it was completed. Except for the vintage cars, machinery and external scaffolding, it looks like any typical construction site; mud, wood, concrete and workers standing around. The photos were probably intended for utilitarian insurance record-keeping purposes, but today offer a rare look at the creation of a school building.

The following photographs are courtesy of the Newark Public Library.


CHS Property

This first photograph is merging of two shots taken at the same time in March, 1925 from the roof of the Fielding School, a grade school that had been built in the 1910s. The view shows the plot of CHS, encompassing the front entrance on Parker Avenue all the way to the area of the athletic field. A number of the houses in the distance still exist.


May 5th, 1926, we see a steam shovel and workers digging the foundations. In the background is the Fielding School (now the South Orange and Maplewood Board of Education Offices).

CHS Cornerstone Cover

June 19, 1926, a cornerstone laying ceremony was held. James Betelle was in attendance, who, according to the program, was honored with the “Accceptance of Stone”. This rendering of CHS is a rare look at the entire front facade in plan view. This program is part of CHS’s archives.


By August, the footings are down and windows are being framed with their limestone surrounds. Note the pool being built in the middle.


January, 1927. The framing for the pitched roof and iconic central tower are taking shape. The house positioned awkwardly in front of the building remained there throughout construction. My guess is it was used as an command center for the contractors.


February 3, 1927. It’s a month later, and the eastern elevation is taking real shape. The cloistered row of windows on the first floor were the industrial shops (finished view). They have sadly since been cut away for one of the modern additions.


March 16, 1927, and the front facade is taking shape, but the tower is yet to rise above the roofline.


July, 1927, and the exterior is mostly complete, save for the missing clockworks and windows of the tower. By the following Fall, CHS was opened for classes.

24 thoughts on “Columbia High School: Birth of a Building

  1. Joe Fanning

    “Just” came across this site. As the former Head Librarian at dear ole’ CHS, I am pleased to see the postings. Worked there from 1987-2008 (slight break – 2001 to 2006). In terms of the ‘history’ there are a number of things in the Library’s Archives. The actual floorpan was posted within the 1927(?) Encyclopedia Britannica as an “Ideal school structure.” The alumni from the school are amazing. Without any exaggeration, CHS has the largest number of Academy Award winners of any high school! A comment mentioned above was about THE Pool. it was, as I was told, “The first & largest indoor school pool East of the Mississippi.” If nothing else, I always repeated that factoid every year when meeting new Freshmen and/or potential home buyers. Ironically, unknown to me until after I started working there, it turns out my m-in-l’s family actually donated the property! Their original home was located where the flagpole is now placed in the parking lot. Their name was Beach. Hence, as i used to tell the students, “Why else is there a Beach St off Academy when there is no seashore present?”

  2. Joe Fanning

    Really pleased to see this site. Though not an alumnus, I was the Head Librarian at CHS from 1987-2009. Ironically, unknown prior to my arrival, I eventually learned that my M-in-L’s family (Beach) actually donated the property “for perpetual educational purposes.” They also had declared, if not used as such, the town “must return the land to the family.” Hence, I always said, if they ever shut down Columbia, “the school goes to ME!” Also, in the last picture listed, the structure in front of the school is the Beach Family’s home. Lastly, the floorpan, and front photo, are listed in the 1927 ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA as an example of ‘perfect school structure.’ That volume, as well as number of the structure’s building procedures are also within the school’s Archives Collection.

    1. Steve Weintraub Post author

      Nice to hear from you, Joe (sorry so long to reply!). Funny you mention the Britannica in the archives, I actually donated that after hunting down a copy from a book reseller. The archive’s original copy had gone missing some years earlier.

  3. Joe Fanning

    In terms of the POOL. It was, as I was informed (no real true documented proof) That it the first one in a ‘North Eastern High School.” Thus, I used to jokingly tell the new students, “There was the outside LA HS pool and then OURS!”

  4. Joe Fanning

    Steve: When did you donate the Britannica? Curious, because it was there ‘before’ I was working at CHS. Never had any info about it arriving, so I just assumed it was ‘always there.’ Hope it did not go missing after I left as I made sure it was kept in secure case. At any rate, as previously mentioned, that aspect was a PR item I always used whenever speaking about the place. Also, the Library, though recent (70s) is very large and multi- functional . We, 1989, had it fully tech integrated. Literally, had numerous Library folks (public and school) come to look us over when they were thinking about upgrading their places. Those folks came, obviously, mostly from NJ, but we had a few from PA and a number of visitors from NY checking it all out.

  5. Joe Fanning

    Steve et al:

    Laughing as per the 3/25, 1/27, 3/27 & 7/27 construction photos, I am looking at the Beach’s house. I used to joke with students that “My ancestors (actually in-laws) used to sleep where the flag pole is now.” Appreciate seeing these things after my time is no longer there. Yes, though not an actual alumnus – having worked at CHS for 22 yrs it sure is a deep part of my life as well!

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