Former School Building in Upstate NY

East Springfield Union School, East Springfield New York
Date added: March 27, 2024 Categories: New York School
Front looking across RT 20 (1996)

The East Springfield Union School, opened in 1909, the school, built to house the Union Free District #1, replaced five independent common district schools in the town of Springfield. Attributed to an architect identified only as "Mr. Warner," the school has a distinctive Neoclassical style design. Although the school was executed in concrete blocks (an innovative, yet economical period building material), the addition of several purely decorative elements, including the heavy cornice, the slate gable ends, and the lunette windows, reflect community pride in the new East Springfield Union Free School. The building also includes a substantial 1936 cinder block addition that incorporated an auditorium and gymnasium, features by then deemed essential for school construction.

The East Springfield Union School, later the Springfield Central School, building was used for about eighty years, from 1909 to 1989, when the Springfield district consolidated with the Cherry Valley district, and both moved to a new building in the town of Cherry Valley. In Springfield, one of the earliest European-American settlements on the Allegheny Plateau, residents began establishing schools before 1800, possibly even before the Revolution. Essentially an agricultural community, the town of Springfield was situated on the Great Western Turnpike, first chartered in 1799. Rich limestone soils enabled Springfield residents to compete agriculturally during much of the nineteenth century. First wheat, then sheep and wool, and later still, dairy products, hops, and hay all played important roles in the relative prosperity of the community. At the end of the century, however, the market for many local products began to fail. Despite the worsening economic trend, five districts in the eastern part of the town joined to form a union-free school district in 1906. Subsequently, the district built a substantial masonry school building during 1908-1909. Possibly, legislative events at the state level combined with a sense that the community's children might need to be better educated to meet the challenges of a declining, or changing, local economy influenced district consolidation and the building of a new school.

While the history of education in New York State begins before the Revolution, elementary public education only began to be readily available in the early 1800s. Early political leaders linked education with the development of national prosperity and the success of republican government, but it took the Common School Act of 1812, a permissive act, and its mandatory successor passed in 1814, to inaugurate public education in New York State on a broad scale. In Springfield, seven districts were initially established, but the number had risen to thirteen by mid-century.

The history of education in Otsego County appears to follow the general trends of rural New York State. A.G. Tuthill, School Commissioner for Otsego County District #1, remarked in 1878, that districts "will put up a small building on a point where three roads come together, paint it red, and christen it a schoolhouse; go home, draw a long breath, thinking they have done their whole duty towards the school for the next fifty years." Such rural apathy during the nineteenth-century towards education was indicated by poor attendance, poor remuneration for teachers, and poor buildings. A few districts bucked the trend early and established union-free districts under the Union Free School Act of 1853, which enabled common school districts to join forces to provide broader education opportunities, usually graded classes and a wider variety of course offerings. The first in Otsego County was founded in 1868 in Oneonta, a newly booming railroad community, followed closely by Cooperstown, the county seat and legal and banking center, in 1871. By 1887, Middlefield, Schenevus, Worcester, East Worcester, Schuyler Lake, and Richfield Springs all had union-free schools. East Springfield, however, was part of a group, also including Cherry Valley and Milford, where the first major district consolidation occurred in the early twentieth century.

Two pieces of legislation may have directly influenced the decision to create the Union Free District #1 in East Springfield. In 1895, the Horton Law provided a $100 cash incentive to districts that organized graded higher education, then referred to as academic departments and now called high school courses. In some common school districts, teachers joined forces to create larger schools with more offerings, thus creating union-free districts. In 1905, the Consolidated School Act passed, further encouraging small common districts to consolidate their efforts in union schools. These acts were directly linked to the progressive tenor of the time, when many Americans turned their reform and missionary zeal to problems at home. At the national and state level, rural Americans, particularly in the Northeast, were thought to live in deplorable conditions. Educational reform received much attention: consolidation of resources was advocated. It was noted, for example, when Mt. Vision in the town of Hartwick became a Union School, "This will enable the district to conduct a limited high school department. The village is to be congratulated on its progressive step." (Otsego Farmer, 15th June 1906) The Union Free District #1 in East Springfield was established in 1906, consolidating five earlier districts: #1, Van Deusen's; #2, The Gate (named for the turnpike toll gate); #3, Dutch Corner; #7, Gilchrist (or Hallsville); and #13, Middle Village. It was one of the first of a second wave of union free district organizations in Otsego County, and it set the stage for the fairly early establishment of a central school in Springfield. Initially, the newly formed district planned to renovate the old East Springfield Academy building (mow the Grange, located on County Route 31 north of the East Springfield intersection), as was noted in the Otsego Farmer (30th March 1906). The academy, essentially a private, graded school, had been organized under a state charter in 1864. Academies like this had carried the burden of higher education during the 1800s, but as the century closed, New York State concluded that graded education, or high school courses, ought to be free to all. The East Springfield Academy relinquished its charter, which was absorbed by the new union free district. During the 1906-1907 school year, activities included recitations, an end-of-year picnic at the Hyde Bay Association grounds (a public picnic and camping grounds), and an Arbor Day celebration. This focused community attention and pride on the new union school's excellence. During 1907 the board voted to erect a new schoolhouse and allocated the woefully inadequate sum of $5,500 for the job. Within the previous two years, several Otsego County school districts had spent substantially more to build masonry schoolhouses, including Oneonta ($135,000) and Cooperstown (upwards of $75,000). Neighboring Richfield had voted $8,000 to build a smaller wooden school. Was the East Springfield Union Free District unwilling or unable to levy the enormous sum really necessary to build the schoolhouse it envisioned? It could hardly have been unaware, as so much new school construction was carried out and publicized at the time. With the allocation made, an architect, Mr. Warner, was retained, and he designed an ambitious Neoclassical building. The site was the old one-acre site of the District #2, or Gate District, schoolhouse, just east of East Springfield on the south side of the Turnpike road, now US Route 20. Interestingly, a prescriptive book on the building of rural schools published by the National Bureau of Education in 1880 advocated that an acre should be the standard size of a school lot. The commodiousness of the lot was certainly a bonus when the old 1889 building, sold to Joseph Peaslee and moved about a mile east on the Turnpike road, was replaced with the new, considerably larger one. Contractors' bids were secured, but all came in well above the funding allocation. Nevertheless, work at the site had commenced by mid-April 1908. (Otsego Farmer, 16th April 1908) On Tuesday, the 2nd of June, McMath and Son of Herkimer set up the stone crusher for making the rusticated concrete blocks used in the upper stories, and the foundation was completed by mid-July 1908. (Otsego Farmer, 5th June and 17th July 1908) The school was dedicated in February 1909.

To Americans of the period, masonry symbolized permanence, both from the ravages of time and from fire. Though much more costly than building in wood, the choice to build in masonry was made by nearly every school district in the region after 1900. In its choice of masonry building material, however, no other school of the time in Otsego County closely resembled the East Springfield Union School, though the James Clinton Library in East Springfield, erected in 1912, was built of similar blocks. Building entirely in concrete blocks was unusual in the region during this period, though similar rusticated blocks seem to have been fairly commonly used in barn foundations and industrial buildings. In 1908, a concrete block silo in Oneonta was noted in the Otsego Farmer as a novelty. In an agricultural community, perhaps residents were aware of the use of concrete blocks in barn building, or perhaps the contractor or the architect recommended their use to cut costs. The Cherry Valley School, a brick building of about the same size built four years later, cost nearly five times as much, suggesting that using concrete blocks represented substantial savings and still provided the East Springfield district with a masonry schoolhouse.

Despite the economizing measure of using concrete blocks, the school's unusual and striking design appears to have suffered little. With its strong, square Georgian lines and similarities to eighteenth-century domestic architecture, the East Springfield Union School is the sole example of this taste in an academic building in Otsego County. The new schools in Cherry Valley (1913) and Milford (c1914) were brick Arts and Crafts style buildings. The new school in Cooperstown (1908) was a broad, low Neoclassical brick building. Schools built earlier were generally built in wood with fairly utilitarian lines and a noticeable lack of architectural detailing; those built later used lower, broader proportions and a softer set of classically derived decorative motifs, for example the Richfield Springs and Cooperstown schools. So far the architect, Mr. Warner, has not been conclusively identified, although it seems possible he was J. Foster Warner, a leading architect in Rochester with a taste for sturdy, Neoclassical design. His large and varied practice reached far afield in western and central New York State.

While the building's exterior seems to have been built much as it was planned, the interior of the school may have suffered more from economizing. Without the original drawings, it is difficult to determine if the floor plan was altered or not. The current plan, which appears to be unchanged from the time of its construction, lacks the symmetry of the exterior. The small rooms in the front of the building and the tightly cornered, somewhat narrow stairs seem to be different in tone from the exterior. The height of the beadboard wainscoting throughout the building, already an inexpensive finish, feels a little too low in proportion to the overall height of the rooms. Similarly, the low blackboards seem out of proportion and too low for all but the younger schoolchildren to use comfortably. One room shows evidence of an earlier, higher board.

Interestingly, however, information in a prescriptive publication of 1880 from the National Bureau of Education about rural school construction appears to have been integrated into the East Springfield Union School building. This source stated that "a wainscoting should be carried around the room, or at least across the blackboards. Under the blackboards it should be 2'4" high. This will be enough to protect the dresses of the children from chalk, and will not bring the blackboards up too high for convenient use." Further, it stated that "the blackboards should extend 4 1/2 to 5' above the wainscoting to bring the top edge 6 3/4 to 7' above the floor. One large one should occupy the whole extent of the wall behind the teacher's platform." This school does not appear to have had platforms, but the blackboards were hung so that the children sitting at their desks would have had the light from the windows on their left. From the 1880s or earlier, school building reformers advocated banks of high windows that would light the students' work from the left while they worked. South light was preferred, but the provision of any light was deemed healthful. Ideally, no light from another direction should cross that coming from the left. On window size and arrangement, the Bureau of Education stated that it was best to have a bank of windows, or a single one, rather than a series separated by wide piers. This arrangement prevented the barring of the light into dark and shadows which made seeing more difficult. For the most part the East Springfield Union School's windows conform to this, with the piers being narrow. In addition, the window area was to be at least a sixth that of the floor area it was meant to light. This meant that windows must be tall, as much as seven and a half to eight and a half feet in height. And they ought to rise as near to the ceiling as possible. The East Springfield Union School complied in all these particulars. Based on a brief survey of other school buildings in the area, these ideas on fenestration were commonly adopted during this period, even in the smaller, common district schoolhouses.

Windows were extremely important as there was no other interior lighting. The East Springfield Union School was built without electricity or indoor plumbing. Inside toilets, presumably earth closets or some similar arrangement, were installed in 1918 (the two-door outhouse appears in early photographs at the southwest corner of the lot); lights and running water were not added until the 1927 school year, when the district was threatened with demotion from the state. The late date of these improvements in such a superficially high-style building suggests how tight the original building budget had been and where corners might have been cut. The Cherry Valley School, built in 1913, included all of these things in its original building.

Like many of the records of the East Springfield Union School, early class offering lists seem unavailable. The Otsego Farmer, however, mentioned in the first year of the new union district that the school was "progressing nicely under the management of Robert S. Gaskell of Hamilton as principal with Miss Florence Battle of Copenhagen as preceptress, Miss Louisa Fisher in the intermediate grade and Miss Martha Mason in the primary grade." (12th October 1906) By 1922, however, English, Algebra, Biology, Civics, Latin, French, Commercial Arithmetic, Geometry, History A, Agriculture, History C, Common Geography, History B, Economics, Physical Education, and English Grammar were all taught as graded classes at the high school level by two teachers, one of whom also served as principal. Four elementary teachers were also retained. The number of staff in 1906 suggests that the five classrooms on the first and second stories would have been sufficient; possibly by 1922, with six teachers on staff, the two basement classrooms might have been finished. While the room plan appears unchanged, the functions of some spaces probably changed from the early period. The large, well-lit room in the southeast corner of the second floor, most recently the library, was probably first a study hall for the high school students. The small rooms at the front of the building on the second floor may have first served as a principal's office (in use until the school's closing), a teachers' room, and a library. The room in the northwest corner features a glass-enclosed bookcase probably dating to the early twentieth century. Downstairs, the boys' and girls' toilets may have originated as cloakrooms.

Education requirements grew more varied and stringent during the 1920s and 1930s and, in 1936, the district voted to add a large addition to the old East Springfield Union School building, not to cost more than $30,000 according to the budget. The addition included four new classrooms, an auditorium with its stage used as a cafeteria, and a small gymnasium to meet state physical education requirements established after World War I. In 1931, the school had purchased additional land to the south and west of the building for playing fields and, in 1935, rented a field adjacent to that. Photographs from the 1930s show playground equipment too. With these improvements, the two central districts in Springfield, consolidated in 1930, joined to become Springfield Central School District #1 in 1939. The East Springfield Union School building became the high school and the Union District School #2 (built 1923) in Springfield Center housed the elementary grades, an arrangement that persisted until the consolidation with Cherry Valley fifty years later.

When decommissioned by the school district in 1989, the central school in East Springfield had changed little from its period of significance, 1909 to 1936. The original building was erected with no small amount of pride in 1909 by a community strapped for funds and improved fairly late to meet new state requirements, during the Depression. Possibly due to the failing agricultural economy of post-World War II northern Otsego County, few changes were made to the building inside or out. Thus, it retains an unusually high level of integrity in its design. The floor plans of both parts of the building appear unaltered; much of the decorative scheme is intact, though now painted. The surrounding lot also seems to remain much as it was when the school assembled it, and so the overall appearance of the East Springfield Union School, as well as its detailing, makes a very similar impression today as it did in the early part of the twentieth century when it was new and "considered to be the finest to be found in any town the size of East Springfield in the State" (The Freeman's Journal, 9th March 1909).

The East Springfield Union School building was purchased by a private citizen from the school district in 1990 for use as a museum.

Building Description

The East Springfield Union School building is located on the south side of US Route 20 between East Springfield and Cherry Valley in Otsego County, less than a half mile east of the intersection of US Route 20 with Otsego County Route 31. Set on a hill, well back from the road, its striking Neoclassical facade arrests the view of all passers-by. The property boundary embraces 2.78 acres of land bounded on the north by US Route 20, the Otsego Motel and Diner to the east, an abandoned orchard to the south, and a house and land to the west. The parcel includes a wide greensward in front of the school facing the road and a playing field to the west on a leveled terrace slightly below the grade of the school building. Tree lines mark the upper and lower terrace edges. To the rear of the school is a paved playground and an additional grassy area beyond. To the east, the ground falls away from the school building, and a paved drive connects US Route 20 with the paved playground behind. The bulk of the property is seeded with grass; a few ornamental trees grow in front, including cedars flanking the main entrance and assorted yews and forsythia. A shed (c.1970) stands at the southeast corner of the property. This parcel represents the final configuration of land, achieved by 1931 and in use until the school's closing in 1989.

The school building was built in two phases. The front and earlier portion of the building is a two-story, T-plan, cross-gabled Neoclassical building executed in rusticated concrete blocks, set on a half-raised basement. The later, rear portion of the school building is a utilitarian, single-story cinder block addition on a half-raised basement. The older part of the building features Neoclassical details and a strong commitment to symmetry, while the later addition is entirely unadorned.

The main facade of the East Springfield Union School is dominated by a protruding, full-height central gable, its pediment featuring an Adamesque lunette window, fish scale slates, a heavy wooden cornice, and full return. The main entrance, centrally placed, passes through a large archway of smooth concrete blocks held by a prominent keystone. Originally, dark wood double doors flanked by single doors, all surmounted by a fan window, filled this arch; that configuration was replaced with the current multi-light, arched window above, planking below, modern metal and glass doors, and a narrow vestibule. In the protruding central block, three windows, a central two-over-two flanked by two narrower one-over-ones, pierce the upper story. Quoins created of the rusticated concrete blocks embellish the vertical lines of the building. Single window openings in the main rectangular block of the school flank the protruding central block creating an entirely symmetrical front facade, down to a blind window in the upper right. This window was apparently always closed as its filling appears identical to the rest of the building.

The east and west facades of the school repeat the dominant stylistic features and massing of the main elevation. The end gables have identical Adamesque lunette windows, fishscale slates, heavy wooden cornices, and full returns; quoins mark the corners of the building. The fenestration of these facades differs somewhat. Four two-over-two windows, separated by narrow piers, but with a connected concrete sill, mark the second story east facade, while a bank of four two-over-two windows and a fifth single two-over-two window pierce the first story. Below the concrete water table, three individual shortened windows allow light into the half basement. On the west facade, five evenly spaced two-over-two windows with a connected concrete sill allow light into the upper story, while four two-over-two windows separated by narrow piers are asymmetrically placed toward the southern corner of the first story. Three individual shortened windows below the water table match those on the east elevation. The lower level of the rear elevation of the original building is entirely hidden by the later addition. Early photographs reveal a tall brick chimney in the original building, presumably for a furnace. This is now gone.

The later addition has a larger footprint than the original school building. Built of cinder blocks with a flat roof hidden by a parapet, it has a basement built partially above grade and a full upper story. On its west facade, there are two groups of four evenly spaced, two-over-two windows on the first floor. These are matched below by half-windows in the basement rooms. The rear elevation of the addition features a doorway capped by a wooden roof, a brick smokestack, a pair of windows at the southwest corner on the first floor matched by half-windows below, and a bank of three twelve-over-twelve windows placed toward the southeastern quarter of the first floor. These three windows are mirrored by three more across the north side of the addition, visible where it projects beyond the east facade of the earlier building.

The interior of the older portion of the East Springfield Union School does not reflect the overall sense of symmetry of the exterior. Upon entering the school, a central stairway rises a half-story above grade to the first floor. From this asymmetrically placed central hallway, a main north-south corridor passes to the back of the building. The door to the southeastern classroom also faces onto this hall. A stairwell to the upper story and to the partially raised basement below fills the northeast corner of the building. Also on the first floor are girls' and boys' toilets. These are entered from doorways opening onto the central hall, the girls' to the east and the boys' to the west. Upstairs, the principal's office is placed in the northeast corner over the stairs and the girls' toilet. There is a small room in the front gable and a second slightly larger one in the northwest corner. There are two classrooms of unequal size on the western side of the building. A large library fills the southeast corner, and a doorway from that room opens into a final upstairs classroom, nearly centered on the eastern wall. The basement has two classrooms with concrete floors set in the southeast and southwest corners; utility rooms are placed toward the north wall of the basement. The interior spaces of the older part of the building are characterized by high ceilings sheathed in embossed metal (now hidden by dropped ceilings with fluorescent light panels), beadboard wainscoting, plain door and window frames, and blackboards. The library has banks of pine shelving on its north and west walls. Throughout the first and second stories, the flooring is light colored, even-width wooden boards, except for modern carpeting in the library. The main entrance to the school is filled in with a beadboard wainscoting of a narrower width than that used throughout the building, a metal frame glass door and an arched window of small lights to allow light into the entry hall.

The addition is entered from the main first floor corridor of the original building. On the west side of the corridor there are two large classrooms. At the southern end of the corridor, a stair descends half a story to the rear exterior door. Opening off the upper landing to the east, a hallway passes by a small kitchen area to a stage. The stage proscenium arch opens north onto a half-court gymnasium; the gym floor is a half-story below the stage floor to allow head room for physical activity. The auditorium/gymnasium is lit by six twelve-over-twelve windows. In addition to the upper level classrooms in the addition, two more classrooms were placed directly below them on the west side. The physical plant was in the southwest corner.

With the exception of the large addition, alterations to the East Springfield Union School building are few. The floor plan of the earlier building appears unchanged, though cloakrooms and closets appear to have been added in the first floor east classroom and the doors throughout seem to be solid panel replacements, possibly a response to the fire code. In some classrooms the varnished beadboard wainscoting has been painted. The basement classrooms of the old building may have been finished later than the upstairs ones. While the interior of the addition also seems to be very much unchanged, it is much deteriorated from water damage and neglect. The interior of the earlier building has weathered neglect better, a testament to its builders. The exterior also seems virtually untouched with the exception of the alteration of the arched main entry.

East Springfield Union School, East Springfield New York Front looking across RT 20 (1996)
Front looking across RT 20 (1996)

East Springfield Union School, East Springfield New York Front looking across RT 20 (1996)
Front looking across RT 20 (1996)

East Springfield Union School, East Springfield New York Side view (1996)
Side view (1996)

East Springfield Union School, East Springfield New York Side view (1996)
Side view (1996)

East Springfield Union School, East Springfield New York Back view (1996)
Back view (1996)

East Springfield Union School, East Springfield New York First floor front entrance from lobby (1996)
First floor front entrance from lobby (1996)

East Springfield Union School, East Springfield New York First floor auditorium from bleachers (1996)
First floor auditorium from bleachers (1996)

East Springfield Union School, East Springfield New York Second floor hall showing office and door to English room (1996)
Second floor hall showing office and door to English room (1996)

East Springfield Union School, East Springfield New York Second floor English room, door to language room (1996)
Second floor English room, door to language room (1996)

East Springfield Union School, East Springfield New York Second floor language room (1996)
Second floor language room (1996)

East Springfield Union School, East Springfield New York Second floor library (1996)
Second floor library (1996)

East Springfield Union School, East Springfield New York Second floor library (1996)
Second floor library (1996)