Old School Building in NY State before Restoration

Nichols High School, Nichols New York
Date added: March 30, 2024 Categories:
View from west (1995)

Built in 1911-12 to replace an earlier frame school, Nichols High School was designed in the Jacobean Gothic style by T.I. Lacey & Son of Binghamton, New York. This style is characterized by brick construction with stone or cast stone trim; parapet walls, often in the form of Flemish gables; blunt-point arches, known as Tudor arches; and large amounts of glazing. The asymmetrical interior plan of the Nichols High School, designed around a main staircase and side staircase, is relatively uncommon among school buildings of the period.

Its interior is distinguished by a large number of early twentieth-century finishes and fixtures, many of them original. These features include beaded board wainscoting, pressed metal ceilings, coat racks, light fixtures, chalkboards, and chalk trays, toilets, and radiators. Changes made to the building have been minor. The roof has been replaced, a few interior partitions have been removed or replaced, and an office was remodeled ca. 1950, but no other significant changes have been made.

The Village of Nichols is located in Tioga County, New York, just south of the Susquehanna River near the Pennsylvania border. First settled in the late 1780s, it grew into the township's largest village by its position at an important early crossroads, now the intersection of Main and River Streets, and by its, proximity to a navigable creek and the Susquehanna River. The first saw and grist mill in the Town of Nichols was erected within the boundaries of the present village in 1793, which also aided its growth. The village, which was not incorporated until 1903, developed primarily as a commercial center, linking the rich agricultural lands in the Town of Nichols with outside markets. Its principal periods of growth occurred after improvements in the commercial transportation network: the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, the opening of the New York and Erie Railroad through nearby Smithboro in 1851, and the opening of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad through the village itself in 1882. Agriculture continues to be the dominant economic activity in the surrounding township. The population of the village in 1990 was 573.

The majority of buildings in Nichols were constructed after the Civil War, between about 1870 and 1930. Portions of the west and south sides of the village were developed later in the twentieth century. In addition, several early nineteenth-century buildings survive along the two main streets, River Street and Main Street. Except for an elementary school completed in 1958, the former Nichols High School is the only surviving school building in the village. The ca. 1830 Platt-Cady Mansion is located a short distance north of the Nichols High School on River Street.

The Nichols High School was designed by the architectural firm of T.I. Lacey & Son of Binghamton, New York. Most of the buildings known to have been designed by this firm date to the late nineteenth century.

T.I. Lacey & Son is known to have designed two other high schools in New York's Southern Tier during the four years preceding the construction of the Nichols High School. Both of these earlier designs, particularly one for a high school in Candor, New York, constructed in 1909-1910, display stylistic similarities to the design used in Nichols. The most striking similarity between the Candor and Nichols high schools is the placement of the staircases. Both schools feature a main front staircase and a single side staircase, although symmetrical staircase plans were far more common during that period.

Other features of the Candor High School that were used again on the Nichols High School includes a central projecting bay on the front facade flanked by four rows of four-over-two-light windows on each story; similar floor plans, especially on the third story; and execution in the Jacobean Gothic style.

The Nichols High School was designed less than a decade after New York State enacted its first law governing schoolhouse design. Among other provisions, the law, adopted in 1904 and amended in 1910, established minimum floor areas and "air space" volumes in classrooms based on the number of pupils; required adequate ventilation systems and interior arrangements to facilitate egress in case of fire, and required straight runs and landings on staircases rather than winder steps. The regulations accompanying the law required lighting from one side of a classroom only, unless special conditions warranted an exception; required square heads and no transoms on exterior windows; specified a minimum ratio of window area to floor area in classrooms; and dictated stair riser dimensions, blackboard height, cloakroom dimensions, and other specifics. The regulations also recommended, but did not require, fireproof construction, at least of the furnace room, basement, and first floor.

These legal requirements are reflected in the Nichols High School design. The building is constructed of fireproof materials (concrete and brick); all classrooms have windows on one side only (the assembly room on the third floor has windows on two sides because of its size); and the windows have square heads and no transoms.

The present Nichols High School replaced an 1871 frame schoolhouse that was located closer to the street on the same lot. In 1911, the present building was erected and the school grounds were expanded to the rear, creating the school's large front and rear yards. Wappassening Creek followed a route that took it much closer to the building. The creek was straightened in a 1970s flood control project, which also created the present dike and eliminated the trees that formerly lined the creek.

The plans for the present Nichols High School building were accepted by the school board on April 12th, 1911. To reduce the cost of construction, the design was subsequently modified to reduce the amount of Indiana limestone used in the external ornamentation. In addition, the asphalt roof proposed in the original design was abandoned in favor of a hipped roof composed of used tiles taken from the Elmira Academy building, then undergoing renovations. The school was built for $23,000: The principal contractor for the building was Thomas Maney of Sayre, Pennsylvania. The contractor for the interior was Curtis Mills. The high school opened in the fall of 1912.

Perhaps from the outset, and certainly by the 1940s, the elementary grades occupied the second floor and the high school grades occupied the third floor. The two basement classrooms were used by both elementary and high school students. During the forty-six years the school remained in operation (forty-three as a high school and three as an elementary school) almost no significant changes were made to the building. The rear fire escape was installed after the initial construction of the building, but apparently before 1944, as it is not mentioned in the 1944-55 School Board Minutes. The surviving coal-fired furnace was installed in 1944. Two second-floor coat rooms were converted to the principal's office before the mid-1940s. The office was remodeled ca. 1950. In 1953, a doorway was cut through the wall between the third-floor study hall (i.e. the assembly room) and the English room to the southeast. The wire glass basement windows, frosted glass windows in the classroom doors, and bars across the basement windows were also installed in the 1950s. To meet more stringent fire codes, a new asbestos sheetrock ceiling was installed above the furnace, and the wooden partition separating the coal room from the furnace room was replaced by the present cinder block partition in 1954. On the school grounds, an asphalt basketball court was constructed behind the school in 1952.

As early as 1945, the Board of Education of Nichols Union Free School District No. 2 was discussing possible school centralization. In October 1955, the Nichols school district was annexed by the Tioga Central School District. The high school students began attending school in Tioga Center that year, while the junior high school students were transferred the following fall. The elementary grades continued to occupy the Nichols High School, building until a new elementary school opened in Nichols in 1958. In 1959, the school district donated the school property to the Village of Nichols. At the time, the property included the house and land immediately south of the school, purchased in 1941. In 1960, the village sold the property to Irving and Katherine Hall. The Halls lived in the house, and until 1970 used the former high school building for storage connected with their wholesale gift and housewares firm, Hallwares. In 1987, the Halls conveyed the property to their daughter, Patricia Ronsvalle.

The Halls and their daughter made few significant changes to the high school building. The roof was replaced by asphalt shingles; an oil burner replaced the coal-fired furnace; and two interior partitions, one on the third floor and one in the basement, were removed. In 1994, the section of the property containing the high school was sold to Tioga Opportunities Program, Inc. (TOPS), with plans to convert the building to elderly housing.

Building Description

The former Nichols High School is a three-story brick building with limestone trim. Rectangular in plan, its front and rear facades are slightly broader than its sides. Constructed in 1911-12, the building exhibits features typical of high school designs of that period, including fireproof construction, interior wood finishes interior spatial arrangements, and mechanical systems designed to meet recently enacted state laws governing school house designs. The building's exterior ornamentation is largely confined to a projecting bay on the front facade decorated in the Jacobean Gothic style. The interior retains many original finishes and fixtures, including beaded board wainscoting, pine floors and doors, louvered transoms, pressed metal ceilings, light fixtures, and chalkboards. Water leakage has led to some mortar degradation on the exterior, and plaster deterioration and rusted ceilings on the interior. However, the building remains structurally sound.

The Nichols High School, at 84 Cady Avenue, is located on the east side of Cady Avenue in the village of Nichols, New York. The only non-residential building on this block of Cady Avenue, it is larger and set back farther from the street than any other building in the area. The other buildings along Cady Avenue are frame residences built in the late nineteenth or early. twentieth centuries. Two of these were used as auxiliary buildings for the high school during the mid-twentieth century. The house immediately south of the building, at 106 Cady Avenue, was purchased in 1941 and used as the Music House. Another house, located across Cady Avenue from the school, was leased in 1951 and used to house an elementary class.

The former school grounds are level except at the rear of the property, where a raised dike was constructed in the 1970s to prevent flooding from Wappassening Creek. The creek was straightened in the process, creating a much wider area between the school building and the creek than existed historically.

The grounds today are covered by grassy lawns. Mature shade trees line the north and south boundaries of the property between the street and the school building. Other landscape features include a pair of evergreen trees at the entrance to the front walk and a row of four smaller trees behind the building. A driveway and parking lot are located on the south side of the building. No evidence remains of the playground or baseball diamonds that were located at the rear of the building in the mid-twentieth century. An asphalt basketball court dating to 1952 is broken up and overgrown. No other evidence remains of the school grounds historic uses.

The Nichols High School building rests on a poured concrete foundation. The building is three stories tall, with the first story located partially below grade. Its walls are constructed of "Elmira red shale brick," laid in common bond and set in red mortar. The trim is Indiana limestone and the cornice is reportedly galvanized iron, although the latter has not been verified. The windows, unless otherwise noted, are four-over-two light double-hung sash. The building's hipped roof is decorated with exposed rafter ends and capped by a belfry. This roof replaced an earlier roof, perhaps the original tile roof, in the late 1970s. The belfry retains the school bell. The interior structural system is primarily wood frame construction, but one newspaper account suggests that steel beams were also employed.

The front facade of the building, which faces west, is centered around a two-story projecting bay containing the main entrance. The double doors of the main entrance are set in a deep recess under a Tudor arch. The arch frames a six-light transom with wedge-shaped lights. On the second floor, above the entrance, are a row of multi-light windows whose mullions form a geometric design. Above the second story of the projecting bay is a low parapet wall, flanked by short piers and capped by stone trim. On the third story of the facade, centered above the projecting bay, are a row of three windows: a four-over-two light window, flanked by two two-over-one light windows.

On both sides of the projecting bay, all three floors exhibit rows of four four-over-two light windows. A continuous stone water table surrounds the building, forming the lintels of the first (ground) story windows. The second-story stone lintels do not extend beyond the row of four windows. The cornice forms the lintel over the third-story windows. The same lintel pattern can be found on all four sides of the building.

The south facade features fenestration in the central section only. The double doors of the south entrance are surmounted by a four-light transom. To the west of the doorway is a first-story window. To the east of the doorway are a large opening now covered with plywood, and a smaller opening at ground level. One or both of these probably functioned as coal chutes. Three second-story windows and four third-story windows are centered above the south entrance.

The rear facade is divided into three sections of roughly equal width. Rows of windows are present on all three stories of the two southern sections, but fenestration on the northern section is limited to a single third-story door, created after the building was constructed to provide access to an exterior fire escape. The fire escape dominates this otherwise blank section of wall. The rear facade also features an exterior brick chimney and a first-story entrance located below grade. The poured concrete steps leading down to the entrance support an iron pipe railing. Previously, a small attached shed of unknown age was located beneath the fire escape at the northern corner of this facade. It was destroyed by fire in the 1980s or 1990s.

The north facade exhibits a row of four windows on the first story and a row of six windows on the second story, both extending west from the eastern edge of the building. On the third story, a row of eight windows extends nearly the entire width of the facade.

The interior plan is designed around two staircases, a main west staircase, and a smaller south staircase. Both staircases are located in the centers of their facades. Each floor of the building contains a central hall and a south hall, which provide access to the rooms at the peripheries of the building. Except for the concrete steps located below grade, all staircases in the building are wood. Nearly every room, including the hallways, features vertically-laid beaded board wainscoting, lath and plaster walls, and pressed metal ceilings. The original plan called for Georgia. long-leaf pine floors, and North Carolina pine doors and casings. The wood is clear finished throughout most of the building. The pattern of the metal ceiling varies between the first floor and the two upper floors. All classrooms contain one or more chalkboards, but it is not known whether any are original to the building. At least one chalkboard, located in the northeast room on the first floor, bears the handwritten message "Installed in 1933." Several rooms retain double-roller window shades dating to the mid-twentieth century.

The first floor is divided into a ground level, containing the entry foyers and two adjacent toilet rooms, and a lower level sunk partially below grade. The toilet rooms, both of which are located in the southwest corner of the building, are accessible only from the foyers--the girls' room from the west entrance and the boys' room from the south entrance. The toilet rooms appear to contain both early and mid-twentieth-century fixtures, in some cases possibly original. These include sinks, toilets, and wooden enclosures for the toilets featuring beaded board paneling and swinging doors.

The portion of the first floor located below grade is substantially larger than the portion located at grade. From the main (west) entrance, stairs on the north side of the foyer lead down to the lower level. Extending across the north side of the building at this level is a large room that was formerly divided into two rooms of roughly equal size. These were designed for use as a boys' playroom on the east and a girls' playroom on the west. By the 1940s, they were used as a first-grade classroom and a business classroom, respectively. The partition between these two rooms was removed between 1992 and 1995. On the east side of the building, south of the boys' playroom, was a furnace room. A partition created a coal storage area at the southern end of this room. The present concrete block partition replaced a wooden partition in 1954. The original openings in the south wall of the coal room, used to take coal into the building, are still extant.

The second floor features a central hall and four classrooms of roughly equal size, one located in each corner of the building. This level also contains two coat rooms, one located between the northeast and northwest classrooms, and one located between the southwest classroom and the south stairs. Between the northeast and southeast classrooms is the only room that has been substantially altered since the building's period of Significance. This room, originally designed as two small coat rooms, was used as the principal's office by the 1940s. Remodeled ca. 1950, it exhibits a hung fiberboard ceiling, a fluorescent light fixture (although the original fixture appears to survive above the hung ceiling), and vinyl tile floor.

The third floor is dominated by a large assembly hall that extends across the north side of the building. A short platform at its east end formerly served as a small stage. In the southeast corner of the building is a large room formed by the removal of a partition between two smaller, nearly square classrooms. The partition was removed sometime after 1960.

This room is the only room in the building in which the original light fixtures have been replaced by fluorescent light fixtures. Along the south wall of the building, just west of the room at the southeast corner, is a small room designed for use as a teacher's lounge, and later used as a language classroom. In the southwest corner of the building is a science laboratory. The laboratory contains shelves along its east wall and the building's only sink outside the toilet rooms. Between the laboratory and the south staircase are two adjacent coat rooms. The east coat room is split level, with steps leading up to a small platform by the window on the south end. This room was reportedly used as the dunce room in the last years of the school.' The unfinished attic is accessible through a hole in the ceiling of the west coat room. Between the laboratory and the assembly hall, on the west side of the building, is a room originally designed as a library room, and later used as the nurse's office.

Remarkably few changes have been made to this building. On the exterior, the only substantial changes have been the replacement of the original tile roof with asphalt shingles during the 1970s, the installation of a fire escape and a third-story door exiting onto the fire escape, and the recent removal of a fire-damaged shed of unknown age located on the rear facade. On the interior, four partitions have been removed or altered, a doorway was installed between the assembly hall and the room to the southeast in 1953, and a principal's office (perhaps converted at an earlier date from two small coat rooms) was remodeled ca. 1950. In addition, a small number of fluorescent light fixtures have been installed; at least one chalkboard was installed in 1933, and the plumbing and electrical wiring were updated through approximately 1955. Between 1992 and 1995, fluorescent light fixtures were removed from the third floor assembly room, although the original fixtures were left in place. The partition between the basement classrooms was removed during the same period.

Nichols High School, Nichols New York View from west (1995)
View from west (1995)

Nichols High School, Nichols New York View from east (1995)
View from east (1995)

Nichols High School, Nichols New York Third Floor study hall (1995)
Third Floor study hall (1995)

Nichols High School, Nichols New York Third floor laboratory (1995)
Third floor laboratory (1995)

Nichols High School, Nichols New York West Staircase between second and third stories (1995)
West Staircase between second and third stories (1995)

Nichols High School, Nichols New York First floor plan
First floor plan

Nichols High School, Nichols New York Second floor plan
Second floor plan

Nichols High School, Nichols New York Third floor plan
Third floor plan