The History of Pelham Memorial High School

Pelham's First High School, now Siwanoy Elementary School
(Photograph from the Pelham Town Historian Collection)

Throughout the 18th and into the start of the 19th centuries, Pelham did not offer public high school education.  Children either went to private school (including boys to the "Taft School," then located in Pelham, or girls to "Mrs. Hazen's School").  In fact, many towns and school districts in New York did not have high schools until well into the 1950s and children from those towns often went to neighboring towns for anything beyond eighth grade with the cost paid for by the child's home district.  In the case of Pelham, kids could go to Mount Vernon or New Rochelle for public high school.  The construction of the building that is now Siwanoy Elementary School made public high school education in Pelham possible for the first time in September, 1910.

Plans for a new high school began with a special taxpayer meeting on November 13, 1908 to vote on a proposition to purchase a site for the new school.  According to news reports from the time:  "At that meeting the present site was decided upon and the Board of Education was instructed to purchase the same and to issue $70,000 in bonds" to purchase the land and construct the new school.*  York & Sawyer, a firm well-known for major college building commissions, were retained as the architects and Smith Brothers had the winning bid as contractors (a local firm that would go on to build many of Pelham's  landmarks, streets and infrastructures).  The cornerstone was laid October 23, 1909.

In addition to adding high school classes on the top floor, the building also consolidated two earlier elementary schools into "Siwanoy Grammar School."  (A third, "North Pelham Elementary School" (on the site of the current Hutchinson School), was renovated and enlarged). 

The first "Pelham High School" was dedicated February 1911.  But it was not long before the rapid development of Pelham and the outstanding reputation of the new school led to significant increases in enrollment that outgrew the size of the facility.*  By 1919, there were over 100 students enrolled in the high school, studying alongside children in grades k-8 in a building that was less than one-third the size of the later expanded and current Siwanoy Elementary school.

* Pelham Sun, February 18, 1911

The entire student body of Pelham High School, 1919
prior to construction of PMHS
(Photograph from the Pelham Town Historian Collection)

Plans for another new high school stem from February, 1917 with the establishment of a "School Extension Committee" formed "to take up the problem of making provision for the ever-growing needs for increasing the educational facilities of the district."**  The architectural firm of Tooker & Marsh in New York City was selected through a competition sponsored by the American Institute of Architects.  Multiple firms competed and the selection was made by a broad-based committee, including residents with art and architecture experience, who later contributed to the interior decoration of the building. 

With World War I having ended the year before, the whole town turned out to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone on October 18, 1919 for "Pelham Memorial High School," which would be dedicated to those who fought and died in "the Great War."

**The Pelham Sun, April 28, 1922

This original billboard poster from the Pelham Town Historian Collection lays out in detail the cornerstone-laying celebration.

Parade leading to the laying of the PMHS cornerstone
(Postcard from the Pelham Town Historian Collection)

Laying of the PMHS Cornerstone, October 18, 1919
(Photograph from the Pelham Town Historian Collection)

The high school freshmen commenced the school year in the fall of 1918, no doubt hoping that they would soon be students at the new Pelham Memorial High School, before their graduation in 1922.

Photograph from the Pelham Town Historian Collection, "Freshman Class of 1918, Class of 1922"

The granite used to construct PMHS was described in contemporary news reports as "locally quarried."  It is possible that the stone was taken from the ledge rock along Wolfs Lane, accounting for some of the dramatic change in topography between Boulevard and Franklin Place.  At left, a photo  showing later quarrying along Wolfs Lane as part of a WPA project to install granite curbstones.  The stone removed created the hollow in Wolfs Lane Park where the "Woodland Playground" is now located.
(Photo courtesy of Scott Stiefvater)

As Reported in the Mount Vernon Argus Newspaper: 

"I stood on the corner of Fifth avenue and Fourth street, North Pelham, ... when a crowd of school children passed by.  They were talking about the new Pelham high school and one youngster said, "It is to be built of native stone." "Who told you it is to be made of native stone?" I asked.  "Ah, go on," he replied, "don't you supposed I can read the papers?  I saw it in the Argus."  "What do they mean by native stone?" I asked.  He burst into laughter and replied,
"It means one hundred percent Pelham!"

Although the cornerstone was laid October 18, 1919, the Pelham Sun described the "[m]any difficulties ... in carrying out the work. Wartime scarcity and the high price of materials, and inability to obtain deliveries all tended to delay progress ...."
One year after work began, work on the gymnasium and auditorium was described as "at a standstill" as contractors waited for steel.

View of partially completed PMHS from Colonial Avenue,
looking through to gap where front entrance would be located.
(Photo from the Pelham Town Historian Collection)

By July 4, 1920, the roof structure was underway and the American flag was flying high on the first PMHS flagpole in honor of those who served and died in WWI and to whom the building was first dedicated.  The flag, which has flown over PMHS ever since in their honor, was later flown on a pole attached to the school before the current flagpole was erected in front of the school.

(Digitally restored and re-touched photo from the Pelham Town Historian Collection)

PMHS Opens 1921

Pelham Memorial High School opened for the start of the school year in the fall 2021, but some interior details and woodwork remained unfinished, delaying the official dedication until the spring.


Right: Copy of drawing by Vernon Howe Bailey, "Sketches of New York's Suburbs,"
published in the New York Sun
1935. (Original in the collection of the New York Pubic Library.  Copy from the Pelham Town Historian Collection.)

Dedication of PMHS
May 6, 1922

With a celebration rivaling the cornerstone laying two and half years earlier, the day's events began with a ceremony in front of the Town Hall. Veterans marched to the new high school where the dedication ceremony was held in the auditorium.

(Original PMHS Dedication Ceremony Program from Pelham Town Historian Collection)

Above:  Photos of the Town Hall Ceremony and
Parade down Fifth Avenue & Wolfs Lane to PMHS 
(From the Pelham Town Historian Collection)

The dedication ceremony on May 6, 1922 put Pelham on the map as having one of the premier high school facilities in all of Westchester County.  The architectural style was described at the time as "Collegiate Gothic," a style that lent itself well to the use of gray granite as the primary facade material.   The center entrance pavilion was, and remains, the most significant architectural component of the building. The center, two-story protruding bay originally had leaded-glass, cross-hatched windows with stained glass crests as insets.  (These regrettably fell victim to modern replacement windows.) 
 
The interior also features outstanding architectural features, including the oval-shaped, stained glass skylight on the top floor.  The auditorium, with its heavy oak detailing, was described at the time as "an unusually artistic chapel with gothic ceilings."

The exterior landscape work was designed by leading landscape architects of the time, Lewis & Valentine.  In addition to tennis courts, the "Roosevelt Athletic Field" (later renamed Ingall's Field) included a running track and a combined baseball diamond and football field. The field was surrounded by an iron fence over which it was to have had "a variety of climbing roses."

Both U.S. Senator James W. Wadsworth and U.S. Congressman Benjamin Fairchild attended. Congressman Fairchild, founder and developer of the Pelham Heights neighborhood who lived at 267 Monterey Avenue 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 those boys who didn't come back."  His only son, Franklin Fairchild, was an aviator killed during a training exercise on February 23, 1918.

The Memorial Tablet

Unveiled at the dedication of Pelham Memorial High School, a bronze memorial tablet bore the names of the 222 Pelhamites who "served their country in the World War, in the uniformed forces in the Army and Navy 1917-1919."  Nine of those listed had a star beside their name to indicate that they had perished during service to their country:

Charles Amato
James S. Brown
Franklin Fairchild
Frederick C. Gerloff
Ilmani Heine
Phillip Hassenger
Robert W. McClain
George F. Walsh
John L. Young
 

(To Be Continued ...)

For more about the history of PMHS, attend the Centennial Celebration at Homecoming, October 15-17 where PMHS Principal Mr. Mark Berkowitz and Dr. Maria Thompson are curating an exhibit of 100 years of photos and memorabilia of Pelham Memorial High School.


Arthur L. Scinta

Daronco Town House, 20 Fifth Avenue
Pelham, NY, 10803, US


© 2021 Pelham Town Historian