Wednesday, February 27, 2013

100th Anniversary of School District 27 and the Chestnut Street School

The following article originally appeared in the Winter 2013 edition of the WHCSA News & Views newsletter.

Early photo of Chestnut St School. (Courtesy of the WH Historical Society)

Last month, February 3rd, 2013 marked the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Chestnut Street School, West Hempstead’s first schoolhouse and purportedly the oldest school building still in use in Nassau County.  This edition of A Look Back in Time examines the beginnings of School District 27 and the Chestnut Street School.

The origins of public education in the West Hempstead area stretches back to the 1820s when district 17 was created to serve children who lived in an area covering a large swath of rural countryside west of Hempstead Village.  The first schoolhouse built for this district was a one-room affair crowned by a bell tower, erected at the southern corner of Dogwood Avenue and John Street (now Nassau Boulevard).  The building was known then as the Trimming Square School, taking the name of the tiny village centered at the intersection of John Street and the Hempstead & Jamaica Plank Road.  Perhaps the most significant historical tidbit about the Trimming Square School was the brief stint that a young 20 year-old Walt Whitman spent there as schoolmaster in 1840, right around the time that he introduced the world to the sublime poetry that would solidify his renown as “America’s Poet”.  (When Whitman penned the lines -

The noble trees, the sweet young flowers,
The birds that sing in forest bowers,
The rivers grand that murmuring roll,
And all which joys or calms the soul
Are made by gracious might

published in the May 1840 edition of the Long Island Democrat during his tenure at Trimming Square, could it be that he drew his inspiration from the idyllic scene across Nassau Blvd. where a crystal-clear Pine Brook once gently meandered south through the woods and emptied into a lily-blanketed Hall’s Pond?)

The schoolhouse continued to serve the needs of local children until 1894, when an addition of a second room was necessitated.  A decade-and-a-half later, a couple of neighborhood subdivisions, starting with the Fairlawn Park section in 1906, brought numerous new residents to West Hempstead, and once again, SD17 faced a shortage of space at its aging schoolhouse.  By April 1911, the 29 families of SD17 from West Hempstead openly discussed forming a new school district to commence in the Fall of 1912, and thereafter they arranged a series of meetings to work out details including boundary lines, location of the new school, and the election of a new board.   On Wednesday, August 9, 1911, a vote was held in Norwood Chapel (WH’s first church located at the corner of Hempstead Ave and Oak[ford] St.) where residents of West Hempstead passed a resolution to authorize the establishment of a Union Free School District.  Later that Fall, on October 7, voters gave almost unanimous approval to Proposition 3, to raise $3,000 to purchase a centrally located school site at Chestnut Street.  That vote, however, was declared illegal due to its short and inadequate notice, and another vote was scheduled for November when once again, Prop. 3 was carried.  Hempstead architect I.B. Baylis was then promptly chosen to design a four-room school building.

The first ever school taxes for SD27 were scheduled to be paid in December 1911 and a paltry rate of 44 cents per $100 of assessed property valuation was set.  (To give you an idea of how different a world we live in and how far our school taxes have come since then, consider the case of Robert Wilcox, who at the time was about to begin construction of a new home at 555 Cedar Street.  Using his actual purchase price of his lot at $1,600 and his actual construction cost of $3,200, Wilcox’s annual tax bill would have come to $21.12.   Factoring for inflation, in today’s dollars that would have been like paying $462.  And this, mind you, was before the implementation of a Federal income tax, which would not come until the following year!)

Title of the Chestnut property was acquired by the district on June 1 and shortly thereafter notices requesting sealed bids were sent out for the construction of the schoolhouse.  A vote at the Chapel on the 21st elected the district’s first trustees, whereupon a local real estate man named Paul Ohrtman was chosen as President of the Board of Education.  (Ohrtman went on to have a prolific local civic career where, in addition to SD27 Board President, he served as Fire Commissioner, Sanitation Dist. 6 Commissioner, and TOH Receiver of Taxes.  He died in 1967 at age 91).  An Irish teacher from Upstate New York named Mary Davern, a veteran of 32 years who had previously taught the upper grades at Trimming Square, was chosen as Principal of the new school.

In August, the winning bid for the building of the school went to a local contractor named Carl Mirschel, whose yard was located in WH on the Turnpike and who had built extensively throughout the area.  Construction hastily commenced, but in the interim a home on Woodfield Road was leased from Franklin Duryea to be used as a temporary school until the Chestnut building was ready.   This home hosted the first ever day of classes for the nascent district on Monday, September 9th.  Meanwhile that Fall, contractor Mirschel was working at a fever pitch and by November, he had enclosed the outer structure of the Chestnut building. 

Monday, February 3, 1913 was chosen as the move-in date despite the fact that the interior of the school was not quite finished, and on that date, without much fanfare, the Chestnut Street School was inaugurated.

Over the years, Chestnut underwent two significant expansions to meet the needs of the growing district: the first when a south wing was added in 1925 and a second when a north wing 1947.  However, the original building with its distinctive bell-tower remains intact and is a testament to its sturdy construction, over 100 years ago.


Fred Limbach said...

My Dad Christian Limbach graduated from Chestnut Street School in the mid 1920s.

Andrew Reinbach (WHHS Class of '64) said...

What's now called Hall's Pond was Wall's Pond until the 1960s. It was owned, along with a substantial piece of land, by the Wall family, who also owned the mansard-roofed. Empire-style mansion on the little hill set back from Hempstead Avenue and across Nassau Blvd., overlooking the pond. When the pond was renovated by the county in the 60s, the Republican county government re-named it, long alleged to have been a slam against the Walls, who were Democrats.

Frances said...

It's nice to see schools continuing to become better with time.

Bill said...

I don't live anywhere near there now, but recall playing Little League there in the 60's. I think we only played there one year, but didn't recall a building that old. I brought it up in Google Maps Street View and I don't see it. Where in all that building is the original "oldest school building still in use?"

Jacob said...


The two additions, particularly the north wing added in 1947, almost completely enveloped the original building, but it is still there in its entirety. Its western and (to a lesser extent) eastern facades are still exposed. Also, if you look closely, you will still see its signature bell tower atop the structure.

lewis thurston said...

My great grandfather was Carl Mirschel who built Chestnut Street School. I have fond memories of working at Mirschel Lumber with my dad and Grandpa as I was growing up. -- Nancy Stiehler Thurston