Kalamazoo Central High School
Center of Education in Kalamazoo Since 1858
Everyday thousands of people pass by the Community Education Center, otherwise known as “Old Central,” located at South Westnedge Avenue and Vine Street, not realizing that there has been a school on that site since 1858. The history of the school and the buildings that have been a part of it, show not only the changes that have happened in the community, but also the changes that have happened in education.
In 1857 the Trustees in Kalamazoo purchased five acres from Arad C. Balch at Vine and West Streets for $6,500.00 and set off to build what became known as the Union School. Previous to this, the village had four separate schools in four separate districts. The State of Michigan passed a law that allowed these school districts to combine into one union district. These early schools only covered what could be compared to grades one through eight.
Initially high school education was private and expensive. However, when these union schools were built, many districts, like Kalamazoo, began to offer free high school education. Kellogg and Stevens did the carpentry work, and F. and E. Thorpe did the masonry. On November 10, 1858, an article in the Kalamazoo Telegraph described the opening on December 6 of the new school which would be divided into primary, intermediate, grammar and high school branches.
The Italianate building, which cost close to $45,000, was then on the outskirts of the village. Large apple and pear trees surrounded the building. A fence circled the structure, not only to keep students in, but to keep animals out. Lizzie Rollins Hoffman described the building fifty years later:
“Perfectly square, surmounted by a cupola, its wide halls and big gong; its well lighted rooms, especially the high school room with its elevated platform and the old-fashioned clock that ticked away the minutes and hours of our happy school days…”
The Telegraph article goes into great detail about the interior. Each floor held a variety of rooms including recitation rooms that would accommodate anywhere from 150 to 200 students, with the third floor room seating 300. Years later, Sarah Wadhams George said about that room “the blackboards were so far away they taxed our sight.”
Non-district students were charged tuition, and all students had to pay extra for drawing, painting and music classes. Not long after Kalamazoo’s Union School opened, the State of Michigan allowed districts who had at least 200 students the right to create a high school and to approve taxes to support it.
Numbers and Early Curriculum
A year after the building opened there were 975 students attending the Union School, 146 in the high school department, the majority of whom were women. Divided into four quarters, the school year ran from the beginning of September until the end of June. At this time the high school course took three years. All students also took classes in a variety of subjects including Algebra, English, History, Mental Philosophy (now known as Psychology), Science and Economics.
Promoting a student was based both on written and oral examinations, open to the public at the end of the fall and spring terms. Sarah Wadhams George remembered that seniors could gather in room #23 on the third floor for study hours although some were able to “vent their exuberance” there. Not long after the Union School opened, the school offered coursework preparing those students, mostly female, who wanted to become educators themselves once they graduated. By about 1862-1863, students were placed in graded classrooms that were grouped in three, not four departments.
The high school students formed a Lyceum Society and for many Friday evenings gathered to debate the issues of the day. Although they debated such topics as women’s suffrage and capital punishment, Sarah Wadhams George reported that it gave some students a chance to walk home in the dark, “with a favorite boy or girl at whom we scarcely dared glance during study hours.”
Kalamazoo School Case
An issue these students could have debated was one the community found itself in the center. In 1871 in circuit court, three citizens brought suit against the Kalamazoo School District maintaining that they should not be taxed to support high school education. The Michigan Supreme Court in 1874 upheld the circuit court’s ruling that school districts did have this right. This important case, which guaranteed free public high schools, continues to be known as the “Kalamazoo School Case.”
In the fall of 1870, an earthquake could be felt in the village. Carrie Sweezey Goodchild remembered thirty years later that students felt a “queer, dizzy sensation,” and watched “the long chain on the south door …violently swinging back and forth.” The students and teachers evacuated the building immediately. As they gathered outside, she said all watched the cupola hoping that it would collapse. It did not, but for the next ten years debate raged about the building’s condition.
In June 1880 a committee of local builders who closely examined the building and reported that the building could not be repaired leading the Board of Education to approve its demolition. Chicago architect E.S. Jennison designed both the new high school and a new elementary school on the same site; Frederick Miller from Grand Rapids was the contractor. The new elementary school at this location became Vine Street Elementary.
Kalamazoo High School
Completed in 1881 and opened in January, 1882, the new high school became known as the Kalamazoo High School. Parts of the Union School still lived; its bell hung in the new building’s tower, and its cornerstone was placed somewhere in its walls. Along with the bell tower with a decorative finial, the brick Queen Anne structure had prominent entrances. Ten years later, voters approved funds for a new Grammar School built next to the High School and eventually connected to it.
As high school students arrived at school on the morning of Monday, February 1,1897, they were greeted with the sight of the building in flames. One unnamed student wrote twelve years later, “When the roof and tower collapsed all felt subdued, but their spirits rose at the announcement of a week’s vacation.” This nameless student also reported after the fire a number of “mourning gatherings” were held and “at one exclusive wailing party extra portions of hot chocolate and biscuits were offered to the one who could show her feelings most audibly.” The Grammar School, by then known as the Annex, survived.
Students received only a few days of vacation and were back in the classroom by Thursday meeting in the the Y.M.C.A. building downtown. Some students hoped their grades would rise due to lost records and papers, but teachers had their grade books. Students had to walk to the Annex for such classes as Physics.
Third High School Building
Two weeks after the fire, voters approved $20,000 for a new high school building which would contain twelve classrooms, two laboratories and a 500-seat assembly room. The Board accepted the plans of Saginaw architect Averton E. Munger and awarded the construction contract to George H. Harris from Kalamazoo. On February 9, 1898, students and teachers were able to walk through the new Richardsonian Romanesque high school with its high-pitched roof, massive appearance and prominent, arched entryways. One teacher said ten years later that “…as soon as the doors were entered joy reigned supreme.” She continued, “As we wandered through the spacious halls and large airy rooms our delight increased. One child cried ecstatically, ‘Doesn’t it seem just like heaven!’”
Manual Training Program
One year later, Kalamazoo became the first city in Michigan where voters approved the funding of a manual training program. Such classes had been offered in the schools previously, but not at this level. The program would span from grade school through high school. The 1891 Annex, was remodeled and renamed the Manual Training School. Not long after this, the high school became to be known as “Central High School.”
By 1909, the high school was overcrowded. On June 5, 1911, voters gave the Board permission to raise $280,000 for a new gymnasium and classroom buildings for the high school.
The Fourth Building: A “Complete High School”
An article in the Kalamazoo Gazette dated February 8, 1912, said, “No city in the country will have a more complete high school and manual training building than Kalamazoo…” The new gymnasium, which was ready by October 1912, faced Dutton Street and contained two gymnasiums, an indoor track and a swimming pool. Built on the site of the 1891 Grammar School/Annex was a 4-story manual training/classroom building. Along with laboratories and classrooms, there was a “model housekeeping suite” which had a kitchen, dining and living rooms, laundry and bedroom for girls who would be taught the care of each room.
It was felt that these buildings would take care of any future student increase for the next twenty-five to thirty years, but a mere nine years later overcrowding again prompted the Board to ask for funding to build more classrooms and voters approved the proposal on June 29, 1922, which also called for the demolition of the 1898 high school building.
Robinson and Campau’s 1911 plans were used for the north wing. Local architect Rockwell A. LeRoy designed a classroom building that would connect the north wing to the gymnasium and also to the new auditorium also designed by him. The two classroom buildings, completed in 1923, would add sixty new rooms. It was estimated that the entire complex would hold 1,500 to 1,800 students.
The Kalamazoo Gazette reported on August 17, 1922, “…the Central high school plant will in the not far distant future be one of the finest and most complete in Michigan.” The new auditorium, completed in 1924, seated close to 3,000 people and became more than just a location for school productions; it became a community auditorium. It was the site for the Kalamazoo Symphony, the Civic Players, and a venue for big band concerts and traveling symphonies from Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Boston.
During its dedication in October, the Gazette said, “It is immense, comfortable, atmospheric without frills; indeed it is the embodiment which represents a great commonwealth of opportunity.” In another article that month, the newspaper commented on the entire complex, “Standing for what it does, it is not an expense but an investment of the soundest kind.”
There were no major changes to the buildings over the next thirty years, due mostly to the national economy and World War II. In 1955 Miller-Davis Construction Company remodeled the science laboratories, lecture rooms, locker rooms and swimming pool from plans drawn by local architect M.C.J. Billingham. In 1960 the Kalamazoo Foundation funded an extensive renovation of the auditorium, which received new seats, new lighting and new dressing room facilities along with changes to the stage and the orchestra pit.
Plans for a New Facility: The Fifth High School Building
Overcrowding once more was the reason the Board of Education began in the mid-1960s to look at Central High School. In 1960, the School District opened a second high school to the south named Loy Norrix High School. Voters defeated a proposal in 1967 to replace Central High School, to expand Loy Norrix, to build a new third high school, and to make improvements to other district buildings.
On December 16, 1968, the Board approved a smaller plan to build a new high school on Drake Road and to enlarge Loy Norrix that did not require a public vote. Architect Jerry Klingele from Louis C. Kingscott & Associates designed the new building; Johnson-Klein, Inc., built it. Fourteen different names were suggested for the new structure, but the new school would be called Kalamazoo Central High School.
Along with the committees that studied the future of high school in Kalamazoo, other committees were looking into the explosive subject of how the schools in the city could be racially balanced. There was a great deal of unrest in certain schools, Central being one of them. Studies showed that there was a racial disparity between schools. For example, in 1969 16.9% of the student population at Central was African-American as opposed to 1.6% at Loy Norrix. The Board approved a plan in January 1971 for the fall to racially balance the schools using busing, although a new Board overturned it. The NAACP filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court against the District that resulted in an opinion that implemented the plan for the fall of 1971. The case, known as Oliver v. Kalamazoo Board of Education, made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court which, like the United States Court of Appeals, rejected the School District’s appeal to overturn the plan for court-ordered busing to achieve racial balance.
New Kalamazoo Central High School
The new Kalamazoo Central High School opened to students on January 31, 1972, for the start of a new semester. Sitting on fifty-nine acres, the building had four “pods” which held spaces for academic, athletic and other purposes. Students continued to use the auditorium at the old building, renamed that same year for Howard Chenery, a long-time drama teacher at Central who served as the auditorium’s manager and had been heavily involved with Kalamazoo’s theater community. In 2005, Central High School added a new auditorium at the Drake Road campus.
Life at Old Kalamazoo Central
The old Central High School building was renamed the Community Education Center in 1972. Since then it has been home to a variety of Kalamazoo Public School programs and offices including, since 1987, the Kalamazoo Area Math and Science Center. Chenery Auditorium continues to be a site for local and visiting performances for all ages and is a favorite venue for the Irving S. Gilmore Keyboard Festival held every two years.
Times have changed, buildings and people have come and gone, but since 1858, the main purpose of the buildings that have been a part of this site has not changed. It should give Kalamazoo a sense of pride that thousands of young people have walked through the hallways of these buildings, past and present, hopefully with a desire to learn, helped by thousands of teachers with a desire to teach.