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Ellicottville’s Historic 1887 Building a Witness to History

By Mary Fox

“I doubt you will find anyone who didn’t like going to or teaching there,” said Rosie Kelly, who taught third grade in the 1887 School Building from 1967-1976.  “It was a comfortable place to be. Everyone got along very well.”

This imposing landmark at the corner of Washington and Jefferson streets in Ellicottville was built in 1887 to keep up with the growth of the school district.

“We didn’t think in terms of what the building was like,” said Nancy Rogan. “It was all about the kids and coworkers.”  Nancy taught Special Education classes and third grade in the building. “It was fun.”

The stone foundation and trim of the brick building came from the jail being torn down across the street. The words “Union Free School” remain carved above the front entrance, denoting the building was originally a unification of common schools (one-room country schools) and it was free for anyone to attend.

The construction of a two-story wing, providing a large assembly room, and two additional grade rooms, was added in 1912.

In 1928, this portion of the original building was demolished and the present addition erected including a gymnasium and classrooms.

Bernie Stearns attended the school from 1937 to 1950 remembers.

“The building was two floors with a basement containing the boiler and coal storage room, gymnasium with stage, two gym teachers’ offices, restrooms and shower rooms. An old storage area in the basement had been converted into a boys’ dressing and shower area. It had not been properly fixed or painted, more like a dungeon, sort of a dreary place which did not make the boys happy,” said Stearns.

“There was a 7-foot gate at the entrance to the front steps of the school. One year, the front entrance could not be used by the first students, as the whole step area had been filled in with a variety of objects thrown over the gate,” Stearns remembered.

In 1964 when the slate roof was repaired, the bell tower was taken down and the bell was sold. In 1985, when Jim Stone, school custodian from 1951-1985 retired, he found the bell and refinished it. It has been on display in the 1887 Building since then.

“Jim Stone was a great man. He looked out for us and did things for us,” said Kelly. “Everything he did during those 34 years was always in the best interest of the kids.”

A one-story building was added to the back of the school with a separate outside entrance, and after centralization in 1947, it was converted from Ag rooms to a cafeteria.

Lucille Poole started the cafeteria and taught home economics where the historical building is today. “They cooked from scratch and you could go back for more,” she said.

Consolidation with Great Valley and 15 county schools in 1947 made it necessary to hold classes in homes and buildings outside the 1887 Building.

“We thought all kids went to school in a house,” said Barb Halloran of her years attending school in the Murphy House on Route 219.

“A big advantage of the school being located where it is was its convenience to downtown and the Sugar Bowl after school,” said Rogan.

In 1962, the Ellicottville high school was moved to the new building on Route 219.

Elementary grades returned to the 1887 Building until 1976, when they were moved to portable buildings behind the new high school.

In 1976, the 1887 Building was purchased by a group of local investors who rented it out to a variety of businesses and gave use of it to the Ellicottville Memorial Library. Many community events took place in the gymnasium/auditorium. The owners then sold the building to a Canadian investor, Sam Perez.

At the present time, developer Kody Sprague is in the process of working with the town to turn the building into a boutique hotel.

The inside of the building will basically remain the same layout,” said Rogan, chairperson of the Village Planning Board. The classrooms will be made into hotel rooms, each with a different character, hence the designation “boutique hotel.”

“It’s a big project that the village will benefit from,” said Rogan, “Besides an historic landmark being preserved, the village will benefit from bed taxes, property taxes, as well as benefit downtown businesses. It’s a sound move for the village.”

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