Schenectady County

Elmer Avenue School has unique architectural, cultural history

The Elmer Avenue neighborhood that Jane Ann Schermerhorn Ellis Smitley created back in the first dec
A crossing guard assists students at dismissal last week at Elmer Avenue Elementary School in Schenectady.
A crossing guard assists students at dismissal last week at Elmer Avenue Elementary School in Schenectady.

The Elmer Avenue neighborhood that Jane Ann Schermerhorn Ellis Smitley created back in the first decade of the 1900s continues to change.

Elmer Avenue Elementary School, one of nearly a dozen schools built in Schenectady soon after the turn of the 20th century, is closing and its student body will be dispersed throughout the city’s other eight elementary schools. However, things won’t go completely dark too quickly. Elmer Avenue will become Howe School for one year as Howe undergoes renovations. Then, following the 2016-2017 school year, the Howe students will return to their Baker Avenue home.

After that it’s anyone’s guess what will happen to the building originally built in 1905 to accommodate the huge number of immigrants flocking to Schenectady to work for General Electric and the American Locomotive Company. The city was expanding eastward, away from the Mohawk River, as the population grew.

Elmer Avenue School facts — and some well-known graduates

• Built in 1905 at a cost of $29,700.

• When first built, it was known as Eastern Avenue School

• W. M. Thayer was the first principal; he had an annual salary of $900

• First elementary school in New York to have its own library

• New wing added in 1968

• Casper Reardon (1907-1941) went on to become a well-known harpist who played with orchestras, later turning to jazz and playing with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra when Bing Crosby sang with the group. He was in a number of musical comedies on Broadway and later in movies in Hollywood.

• Charles W. Carl, Jr., (1924-2001) was president of The Carl Company from 1957-1984. He graduated from Nott Terrace in 1941 and later Syracuse University.

• Telford Taylor (1908-1998) was the lead U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials in Germany following World War II. He was a graduate of Williams College and Harvard Law School.

Two years earlier the area had begun being developed as contractor George Van Schaick built a series of homes with the money procured by Jane Ellis Smitley. Smitley, born in 1835, had married John C. Ellis, the son of Schenectady Locomotive Works founder John Ellis, and one of the richest men in the city.

After Ellis died in 1884, a year before his younger brother Charles founded Elllis Hospital, Jane married another rich Schenectadian, Joseph Smitley, a man also instrumental in the creation of the hospital.

Nancy Rheingold, who lived on Elmer Avenue for three decades before moving earlier this year, recently looked into the history of her street — which begins at Union Street and heads south until it dead ends at Vale Park — and found Jane Ellis Smitley to be a fascinating individual.

“She must have been an amazing woman,” Rheingold said of Smitley, who died in 1912. “She had the first eight houses built on Elmer Avenue on spec, and it’s her name that’s on the original deeds. In 1903 that’s as far as the trolley went up, and those were the suburbs of Schenectady. She was from an old Dutch family, one of the first to arrive in Schenectady, and the Dutch really encouraged their women back then to be business women.”

The school was built on the short first block of Elmer Avenue, from Union Street to Eastern Avenue. Construction of Nott Terrace High School also began in 1903, while other schools going up in that first decade of the 1900s included Brandywine, Franklin, McKinley and Howe.

Van Corlaer, Woodlawn, Yates and Hamilton all went up in the second decade thanks to the efforts of Schenectady Mayor George Lunn and his school board president, General Electric scientist Charles Steinmetz.

All the new buildings had their own interesting architectural features, but none were as unique as Elmer Avenue School.

“Right underneath the gables on the third-story windows there was this little ledge, probably around 15 to 18 inches wide,” said Rheingold. “In the early days the boys would scare the teachers by getting out on the ledge and walking around. It went all the way around the building, but eventually they removed it because they realized how dangerous it was. As far as I know no one ever fell or got hurt.”

Teacher’s memories

Monica Tryon has plenty of memories after teaching at Elmer Avenue School for 20 years before retiring in 2007.

“I was in the new wing when I first got hired, but I remember thinking back then that this was an old building with a lot of floors,” said Tryon, who taught kindergarten through the third grade.

“We had bathrooms and sinks in each classroom, but if you were in the older wing you had to go all the way down to the basement to go to the bathroom. But it was a great neighborhood school. A lot of the kids would go home and eat lunch and then go back to school.”

Or, some of the students would head across Elmer Avenue to Danny’s Confectionery, a small convenience store known for its variety of candies, ice cream and other goodies. Danny’s was so popular that co-owner Joy Robb and her husband, Tom, had to impose some restrictions on the student body.

“The kids could get a little rowdy and it got to the point where we would only allow three students at a time,” said Robb. “But the kids kind of governed themselves. They’d be outside waiting, and if somebody came up I would hear them say, ‘I’m next, you have to wait in line.’ The system worked very well.”

Laying down the law

Any child showing up at Danny’s when school was in session would get the fourth degree from Robb and her husband, who passed away in 2011.

“If one of them walked in at 10 in the morning, absolutely, we’d ask them what they were doing,” said Robb. “And, if one of them got caught putting something in their pocket, they had to go home and tell their parents or they weren’t allowed back in the store. That was hard sometimes, but Tom would tell them, ‘sorry, you’re out.’ Most of the kids were great. I have some very wonderful memories from 32 years.”

The Robbs, who lived in Glenville, shut down the store in 2000. They rented out the upstairs for a while but sold the building soon after the business closed. The building is now vacant.

“Danny’s was the place to go,” said Tryon, who also lived in the area and had two children who went to the school. “It was the best place. When Danny’s closed it changed things, and now with the school closing the neighborhood isn’t going to be the same.”

Expanding over time

When it was built, Elmer Avenue School cost $29,700 and had 11 rooms. Four more classrooms were added in 1908, and in 1926 it became the first elementary school in New York to have its own library. Considerable renovation was done in 1953, and in 1968 a new wing was added.

After next school year, when Elmer houses the Howe students, the school will be vacated, Schenectady City School Superintendant Larry Spring said. “We’re exploring all options and we’re hoping to get someone who might be interested in developing that site in a beneficial and congruous way for the neighborhood.”

The building might eventually be demolished by new owners, according to Spring.

“They need to do what they have to do for their needs,” he said. “We’re not going to ignore it and allow the building to just atrophy for years and turn into a blight on the neighborhood. The neighbors have expressed concerns about what’s going to happen to the building, and we share them and are very sensitive to that.”

Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected]

Categories: Life and Arts, News

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