End of an Era for Kensington Grammar School
Demolition has started of the former Kensington Grammar School across from St. Paul’s Church, ending an era of a building that has sat vacant for more than two decades.
The demolition of the 1910 portion of the building started on June 24 and several days later workers had moved onto the addition that was added in the 1930s and was known as the John E. Hooker School, named after a local educator. Prior to its construction, students in grades 9 through 12 had to attend high school in New Britain, Meriden, or Middletown.
“It’s sad that we couldn’t save the building,” St. Paul’s Pastor Robert Schlageter said in an interview. “It was filled with asbestos and lead paint and had deteriorated too much. It was a blighted area of the neighborhood and we needed to get rid of it.”
Undertaking the demolition of the brick building is the Manafort Brothers, who plan to sell the brownstone but will save some features, such as two drinking foundations and tile reliefs. Those items, along with possible corner stones featuring intricate design work, will go to the Berlin Historical Society, according to church officials. Other items, such as two pillars from a staircase, will be saved for the church’s planned memorial garden.
Lorraine Stub, a member of the Historical Society, said the school was built by “artisans.” The brick came from local brickyards, as Berlin was the epicenter of the brick making industry for the Northeast from the 1840s until the early 1900s. “The detailed laying of brick in patterns, the brownstone lintels and terra cotta friezes—all works of art,” Stubb said. Some of the tiles and art deco panels were manufactured in the 1920s by the Los Angeles company Batchelder and depict scenes such as St. George slaying a dragon.
When the building was no longer used as a school, it became a community center featuring a pool table, weight lifting, and space for local sports team sign ups. Over the years, the church has relied upon—without permission—the empty lot for additional parking for parishioners on the weekends and by school staff during the weekday.
Since the building was left vacant for so long water and mold damage had resulted, including the complete loss of any original wood. Fires had been set in the building and graffiti was strewn throughout. Additionally there was no heating, electrical service, or properly working plumbing. Church officials estimate that the cost to rehabilitate the building would have cost more than $5 million.
The 31,256 square foot building was built in 1910 and was purchased by St. Paul’s Church in March 2013 for $598,000 according to town records. The parish is hoping to turn the site, which totals around 1.85 acres, into additional parking, a garden and reflection area, and a possible site for a future school expansion.
In a pamphlet that was sent to parishioners explaining why the church was purchasing the building, church officials explained that taking ownership of the land would protect the character of the neighborhood from future development and provide a better experience for its members.
The church made the purchase of the building with $400,000 in savings and a $200,000, five-year “bridge loan from the Knights of Columbus.
Schlageter said that so far parishioners have contributed more than $1 million towards the project. He said work will proceed as more money comes in.
Previous projects for the building never took off. In 2003, the town sold the building for $35,000 to developer Alling Grove Hill LLC, who planned to turn the vacant building into senior housing. Four years later, the building changed hands again and was sold for $520,000 to Newberry Development Group LLC, who had planned to build apartments in a development that was named the Kensington at Heritage Crossing.
Though the building may be coming down, the Berlin Historical Society is preparing a program to give people who attended the school or community center a chance to share memories or photos. Anyone who has photos they’d like to share for a memory book should contact the Historical Society at 860-828-5114 or visit the museum located at 305 Main St., Saturdays 1 to 4 p.m.
In the church’s June 29 bulletin, the Rev. Robert Schlageter reflected on the building from his friary living room, where he could hear the rumble of the nearby wrecking crew. “I’m sure
there is a little sadness in everyone’s hearts to see the first town-wide school crumble,” he wrote. “There were so many memories created in those buildings. Sadly, we all know they were just too far gone and contaminated to be saved.”
The church has added a web cam to its website so that parishioners can view the progress on the site. The link is available on :: St. Paul Roman Catholic Church (Kensington, CT).