For the past 35 years, the Brattleboro Historical Society has called the third floor of the Municipal Building its “home.” In 1987, the Society announced that it would move into the only high school classroom still in its original state. People remembered it then as a science room, but research tells us it served other purposes as well.
The civic center began as Brattleboro’s second high school. The first secondary school was built on the Main Street lot in 1832. Over the years additions were made to the building, but in 1882 it was decided to replace the wooden structure with a more brick schoolhouse. substantial.
The brick high school was designed by local architect George Hines, a permanent resident of Brattleboro who lived on Canal Street. He attended Parson Brown’s School on Chase Street and West Brattleboro Academy. He entered Harvard at the age of 17 and graduated in 1862 with a major in civil engineering and architecture.
For many years Hines ran a machine shop with John Vinton. In the second half of the 19th century, Brattleboro was growing rapidly, so Hines used his civil engineering skills to survey and lay out many of the city’s streets. After leaving his partnership with Vinton, he joined Estey Organ Company as a draftsman and accountant. Hines left a lasting impression on Brattleboro with his architectural ability. He designed the Crosby Block on Main Street, the Village High School at the top of Main Street, and the Civil War Soldiers Monument on the Commons.
The brick high school was completed in 1884 and operated until June 1951. In 1949 the residents had voted to build a new high school and after much debate chose to place the school on the former exhibition center in the southern part of the city. The Third Secondary School, on Fairground Road, first opened its doors to students in the fall of 1951.
In the 1950s, Main Street was changing. The commercial district began along Whetstone Creek 150 years earlier and slowly expanded north along Main Street. Residential properties were converted into commercial blocks and added to the city’s tax base. According to City Manager George Miller, in 1950 a tax-exempt property at the north end of Main Street (referring to the High School and City Hall) meant a loss of $36,000 in revenue possible taxes. Developing the north end of Main Street by getting rid of City Hall or the old high school would bring in much needed taxes.
With the establishment of the new secondary school on Fairground Road, the public no longer needed the old secondary school. The Armory Community Hall also served many of the same public functions as the City Hall Auditorium.
In 1951, a local committee worked to find business developers who might want to buy the town hall or the high school. No buyer for the old high school has been found, but an outside developer has made an offer for the town hall. The building was sold for $75,000 and the land was entered on the tax roll. The income from the sale made it possible to finance the renovation of the old high school to make it a new municipal center. The Town Hall building lot became a WT Grant department store. Eventually, the police department and city offices occupied the first two floors and the basement of the new civic center.
In 1987, the five-year-old Brattleboro Historical Society moved into the former Science Hall on the third floor of the Civic Center. When the high school was built in the late 1800s, it was designed to occupy the basement and first two floors of the building. There were large basement rooms for boys’ and girls’ gathering areas. The first floor was composed of the high school and the second floor was composed of the middle school and the high school. Originally, the third floor was considered a storage space.
In 1908, the school board voted to establish a set of commercial or business courses. The principal argued that not enough attention was given to students whose studies ended with high school graduation. Principal Smith explained that many young people could not afford to go to college or pursue business or business studies outside of the city. These able students lacked a practical education even though they were as talented as many who attended institutions of higher learning.
When the board increased course offerings to include business interests, it also decided to develop the third floor of the school as an area where these courses could take place. Another staircase was built in the middle of the building to lead to the third floor, and classrooms were created where there were storage areas.
Bea Phillips, a business teacher, wrote a memento from her years teaching on the third floor and we have a typed copy of her letter in our collection. She recalled the room that would become the home of the Brattleboro Historical Society for 35 years: “I taught business (or business) math in the corner room at the top of the old staircase; it was also my bedroom… Teaching on the third floor of Brattleboro High School was its own reward from September 1941; I was assigned to teach Typing I students. The class had about 30 students and they were sophomores, juniors and seniors. After the students learned the keys, we played popular records to make the rhythm of keystrokes smoother and faster; ‘Shine On Harvest Moon’ was one of my favorites!… I have vivid memories of putting pans around the floor to catch the rain when the roof was leaking; we borrowed the pans from home economics across the hall. The sound of water slapping in those pots still lingers! Many students worked in the afternoons in the Holstein-Friesian offices downtown. School hours began at 8 a.m. and students left at 1:20 p.m. daily. During the war years, many students had afternoon jobs.
So we know that the Brattleboro Historical Society research room in the municipal building started as part of the school’s business/business program and probably ended as a science room. In between were over 40 years of college students who also considered the corner room at the top of the stairs their “home”. Next week, we’ll be sharing a bit more about the changes in local public education and our local historical society.