While it was the construction of train lines that first drew people to Pelham as a newly-created suburban community, once here, it took schools to get them to stay, and for others to follow.
History of Pelham's Schools
New York State had long mandated that towns fund public education, yet there were no requirements in the 19th century as to the quality or extent of the schooling. Those who first ventured into this new concept of suburban living found in Pelham only a single, one-room public schoolhouse -- the “Prospect Hill School” -- then located on present day Split Rock Road. Heated by a stove in the center of the room, early pupils would later report that those seated near the stove would roast, while those seated furthest away would freeze.
The first “Prospect Hill School,” a one-room school house in use until 1880 Photo from Pelham Town Historian “Montgomery Slide” Collection (Digitized no. 7-20)
A parochial school built by Reverend Robert Bolton in 1843, a year after he constructed Christ Church, offered the only other alternative with a total enrollment of about 35 students.
The building on Shore Road built in 1843 as a community parochial school by Rev. Robert Bolton. Photo from Pelham Town Historian “Montgomery Slide” Collection (Digitized No. 7-34)
The distance to either school was too far and the capacity too limited for the residents of the new “Pelhamville” neighborhood established in 1851 at the north end of town. To address this problem, in 1861 the property owner’s association deeded a piece of the “Pelham Square” (which served as a town square in the middle of the neighborhood) for the construction of a new two-room school house at the corner of Third and Lincoln Avenue. Over the next 160 years, four subsequent elementary school buildings were built in this location (each of which had multiple expansions), culminating in the recent construction of the latest “Hutchinson Elementary School.”
Artist Edward Penfield’s rendition of the “Pelhamville School” located at the corner of Third and Lincoln Avenue. Photo from Pelham Town Historian “Montgomery Slide” Collection (Digitized No. 7-22)
With the development of “Pelham Manor” in the 1870s, new residents found the educational opportunities wanting at Prospect Hill’s one-room school, perhaps in part due to its teacher who had the practice of hurling books at the heads of students who did not solve math problems or recite quickly enough. The school was replaced in 1880 by the “Jackson Avenue School” at the southeast corner of Jackson and Plymouth.
The old "Jackson Avenue School" once located at the corner of Jackson and Plymouth Avenuens
When the “Pelham Heights” neighborhood was established in the early 1890s, children could attend school in a converted house owned by the neighborhood’s developer, Benjamin Fairchild.
The Fairchild House used as an elementary school for Pelham Heights on Boulevard between Loring and Monterey. Photo from Pelham Town Historian “Montgomery Slide” Collection (Digitized No. 7-22)
Beyond elementary school, Pelham educational opportunities were even more limited. The Boltons (in addition to the parochial elementary school) operated a boarding school for young ladies at their “Pelham Priory” mansion. However, the school was small and extremely selective, drawing pupils from other parts of the country, particularly the southeast. It closed in 1882, just about the time that the developers of Pelham Manor, Silas H. Witherbee and his daughter Mary Black, were trying to attract new residents. They offered two of their houses to persuade a teacher from the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, Emily Hazen, to open a new school that was named “Pelham Hall,” but was more generally known as “Mrs. Hazen’s School for Girls.” (The two houses still stand at 952 and 964 Pelhamdale and retain much of their original architectural integrity.)
The Bolton home, "The Pelham Priory," which also served as a girl's school. Photo: image of a watercolor painting by William Rickarby Miller from a private collection.
A year after opening, Mrs. Hazen's School moved to a new campus with two buildings and outdoor athletic space on the block bounded by the Esplanade, Edgewood Avenue and the Boston Post Road. The school was a huge success. It was attended by both local Pelham girls as well as so many others from across the country that in 1893 a dormitory building was added.
View from the Esplanade of the campus of “Pelham Hall” aka “Mrs. Hazen’s School for Girls” Photo from Pelham Town Historian “Montgomery Slide” Collection (Digitized No. 4-058)
Pelham parents who wanted a high school education for their boys, either had them tutored privately at home or sent them to boarding school. But in 1880, Mrs. Black hired Horace Taft as a boys' teacher, setting him up in the same houses where Mrs. Hazen began. The first incoming class consisted of 17 boys, including Mrs. Black’s two sons. Unfortunately, the more than 70 girls at Mrs. Hazen’s School proved too much of a distraction and too tempting a target of practical jokes for Mr. Taft’s boys and the school was moved in 1893 to Watertown, Connecticut. (More about the history of the Taft School)
964 Pelhamdale as it appeared when it was "Mr. Taft's School". Photo from Mr. Taft's School: The First Century, by Richard A. Lovelace (Taft School, Watertown Connecticut, 1989)
Pelham was a good quarter century into its development as a suburban community before any public education was available in town beyond eighth grade in two one-room school houses. After the “Jackson Avenue School” was built, a new “North Pelham School” was built in 188 to replace the Pelhamville school house on Lincoln Avenue (the site of the recently-demolished Hutchinson Elementary School).
The daily curriculum at the two grammar schools consisted through eighth grade of: opening exercises, reading from the Bible, reciting in concert the Lord’s prayer, singing of hymns and patriotic songs and, after recess, memorized and written arithmetic, and American history and civics (with every student required to memorize the Declaration of Independence). After lunch, the studies included (with varying levels of difficulty according to grade) English grammar, Latin, spelling, writing and penmanship (in script), and English and American literature.
The “North Pelham School” built in 1888 with Principal Isaac Hill and two teachers. Photo from the Pelham Town Historian “Montgomery Slide” Collection (Digitized no. 7-23)
The North Pelham School was too small almost from its start; another classroom was added in 1894 and two more in 1897. In 1900, a second floor was added to the North Pelham School, and the building was expanded again in 1910.
The North Pelham School after the addition of the second floor in 1900. Photo: From the Town Historian “Montgomery Slide” Collection (Digitized no. 7-25)
The North Pelham School after the 1910 expansion Photo: From the Town Historian “Montgomery Slide” Collection (Digitized no. 7-26)
Meanwhile, Pelham Heights was clamoring for a proper school building instead of the house that had been loaned for the purpose; in 1900, the “Highbrook Avenue School” was built (on the same location as the current Colonial Elementary School).
The “Highbrook Avenue School” built in 1900, located on the present site of Colonial Elementary School. Photo from the Pelham Town Historian Collection (Digitized no. 32-004)
While an eighth-grade education was the norm, Pelham students planning for a profession went to private school (usually a boarding school) or could attend either Mount Vernon or New Rochelle High School. This all changed in 1910 with the opening of the “Pelham High School and Siwanoy Grammar School” (the current Siwanoy Elementary School building, minus the north and south wings, which were added later).
The Pelham High School & Hutchinson Elementary School as it appeared after its completion. Photo from the Pelham Town Historian Collection; Photos; Siwanoy
Plans for this school began with a special taxpayer meeting on November 13, 1908 to vote on a proposition to purchase a site. According to news reports from the time: "At that meeting the present site was decided upon and the Board of Education was instructed [by the taxpayers] to purchase the same and to issue $70,000 in bonds" for land to construct the new school. York & Sawyer, a firm well-known for major college building commissions, were retained as the architects and the construction contract was awarded to Smith Brothers (a local firm that also built many of Pelham's landmarks, streets and infrastructure). The cornerstone was laid October 23, 1909. In addition to high school classes on the top floor for the whole town, the building consolidated the Jackson Avenue and Highbrook Avenue Grammar Schools.
The Siwanoy School was barely completed before the outstanding reputation of the new school and Pelham’s rapid development resulted in such significant enrollment increases that the building became too small. The Highbrook Avenue School was not only re-opened to serve the Heights, but a house at 105 Boulevard was used as an annex. In less than a decade, there were over 100 students enrolled in the high school, studying alongside children in the lower grades in a building that was less than one-third the size of the current building.
A committee was formed in 1917 "to take up the problem of making provision for the ever-growing needs for increasing the educational facilities of the district." After a competition sponsored by the American Institute of Architects, the New York City architectural firm of Tooker & Marsh was selected for its design of a “Collegiate Gothic” style building that was unrivaled in all of Westchester County. With the end of World War I, the whole town turned out to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone on October 18, 1919 for "Pelham Memorial High School," named in dedication to those who fought and died in "the Great War." Due to post-war difficulties in sourcing steel and other materials, it took two years before the building was sufficiently finished for the school to open for the start of the 1921 school year.
Pelham Memorial High School, July 4, 1920. (Photo digitally restored and re-touched from the Pelham Town Historian Collection; Photos; PMHS)
At the dedication of Pelham Memorial High School on May 6, 1922, Congressman Benjamin Fairchild, co-founder and developer of the Pelham Heights neighborhood stated:
In dedicating this High School building, we are dedicating something which represents not only the last word in high school architecture, but which represents a noble thought in making the development of our educational system as a memorial.... I know what it means, and my heart goes out to every parent whose son went to the war, and my heart gives consoling thought to the parents of those boys who didn't come back.
Congressman Fairchild did indeed know what it meant because he was among the parents of the nine Pelham boys “who didn't come back." His only son, Franklin Fairchild was an aviator killed during a training exercise on February 23, 1918. When a new street was put through adjoining the school, it was named Franklin Place in his honor. (More About the History of Pelham Memorial High School)
Despite Congressman Fairchild declaring PMHS to be the "last word" on educational building, in fact, there would be many more verses and chapters on school architecture in Pelham as the community vigorously debated and planned on how best to address skyrocketing enrollment in the ensuing years.
The population of Pelham exploded in the 1920s nearly doubling from 2,844 in 1910 to 5,195 in 1920 before doubling again to 11,851 in 1930, fueled generally by the nation’s huge economic growth and, more specifically, by Pelham’s easy commute, strong sense of community, and quality of public education. Within just a year of the dedication of PMHS, the Pelham Sun ran a cartoon reflecting the overcrowded conditions of not just the high school, but also the (then) three elementary schools.
Left: Cartoon from the Pelham Sun, April 27, 1923
As has often happened in the history of Pelham, passions ran high when the School Board in 1924 proposed a major school expansion plan. Six different bond proposals were put to the voters that would: extend PMHS; add two wings to the original Siwanoy Elementary School (tripling the size of the building); expand the 1914 Hutchinson Elementary School; acquire seven acres of land in Prospect Hill for a future school; purchase land in Pelham Heights on the block bounded by Pelhamdale Avenue and Highbrook Avenue at Second Street; and build a new Colonial Elementary School on the land. A group of prominent citizens distributed flyers opposing the plan (questioning especially the need for a new school in Pelham Heights and expanding Siwanoy without money to build a school in the rapidly-developing south end of Pelham Manor).
Those supporting the Board of Ed’s proposals distributed an anonymous flyer stating that the opponents had “circulated misleading statements, perverted the facts …, appealed to selfishness, …, [and] flooded the villages with literature calculated to destroy confidence and arouse doubts … as to the integrity of the Board of Education and the correctness of the school extension plans.” The opponents responded, calling the flyer “A Scurrilous Anonymous Eleventh-Hour Circular” that was “a tissue of falsehoods.” The ballots were counted in a “town hall” style meeting. All the proposals passed -- except the proposal to buy land and build a new Colonial School.
The proposed Colonial Elementary School as shown in a 1924 promotional brochure advocating for the passing of a bond to acquire land and build the school. Photo from Pelham Town Historian Collection; Oversized Files; Schools.
The 1924 PMHS extension added a wing across the back facing Wolfs Lane. But by the opening of the school year in 1925, the school was so crowded that it went to a split session with high school students attending early in the morning and the junior high students in the afternoon.
With the failure to pass a bond for a new Colonial School, the Highbrook Avenue School remained crowded; it was too small almost from the day it opened in 1910 with just four classrooms. By 1924, it could only house first and second grades, with the upper classes going to Siwanoy. It would take two more years of bond proposals before a new Colonial School was approved. B ut attempts continued to fail to get approval for more land and, in 1926, the cornerstone was laid for a new school on the same site as the old one.
With the PMHS student population on the verge of doubling from 1924 to 1930, two more bond proposals were put to the voters in 1928: $600,000 for a huge expansion of PMHS and $400,000 for a new school at the south end of Pelham Manor. Both passed. Pelham Memorial High School received a new large gymnasium, a “projection auditorium” (now “Alumni Hall”), 12 classrooms, the library, a music room, an art room, and a string of new classrooms.
On June 9, 1929, the cornerstone was laid for a new “Prospect Hill School,” reinstating the name of the very first, one-room school house in Pelham Manor built on Split Rock Road nearly a century earlier in 1835.
Laying the cornerstone of the new Prospect Hill Elementary School. Photo from the Pelham Town Historian Collection; Photos; Schools; Prospect.
Through the Great Depression and World War II, Pelham Schools remained static as teacher salaries were cut and all but essential expenses deferred. But in the post-War era, old estates were carved up and large parcels were subdivided in Pelham Manor. The “Baby Boom” was on and, in 1960, a $1.6 million bond proposal was passed to install portable classrooms at Siwanoy, Colonial and Hutch, and to build another PMHS extension, which was completed in 1963, consisting of five math classrooms, five science labs, a band/orchestra room and three rooms for instructional arts.
By the late 1980s, school enrollment was in serious decline and the Pelham Board of Education planned to close Colonial Elementary School (stopped only by the extreme efforts of residents who went door-to-door to collect information on future enrollment that refuted the district’s enrollment projections.) While the PMHS graduating classes fell to below 100 in the early ‘90s, within ten years school enrollment had nearly doubled and, in 2001, the community was asked to vote on a proposed new middle school to be built on Franklin Field. After that bond proposal failed, the voters approved an alternative, scaled-down version to adjoining PMHS, and the new Pelham Middle School was dedicated in 2005.
Just as Pelham was preparing to undertake a complete renovation of PMHS in 2008, the financial crisis hit. But the community forged ahead and, because of the economic downturn, was able to achieve a better result (including a new slate roof) for less than originally projected.
The new 68,000 square foot Hutchinson Elementary School opened in 2021, the fifth school building on the site and marking 160 years from the opening of the first one-room “Pelhamville School.”