A Brief History of the Site of the First New Paltz School and Classical School
by Thomas Olsen
presented to the New Paltz Historic Preservation Commission
January 21, 2003
on the occasion of the landmarking of the site of the New Paltz Classical School
Local histories are in agreement on the facts surrounding the establishment of the first purpose-built school building, located at what is now 15 North Front Street. In 1773 the building stones of the first stone church in New Paltz (originally built in 1717) were carted to the North Front Street site, apparently with the aim of establishing a permanent and purpose-built school. It was not until 1812, however, that the project was undertaken, in the wake of a statewide education initiative. An exceptionally sturdy stone and frame structure of about 33 x 33 feet was constructed.
The school operated from 1812 until 1874. Unfortunately, no pertinent documents from this period survive: those that once remained were lost in a fire in 1906. However, there are some peripheral records of interest. The New Paltz Times of May 30, 1862 reported that "The District School, on North Front Street, in this village, under the management of Miss Howland, is in a very prosperous condition. The average number of scholars daily in attendance is fifty." By 1873, attendance had reached 60 and seems to have caused overcrowding severe enough to warrant the building of new school house for the community. On February 16, 1875 a new brick structure located on Church Street was formally dedicated, a ceremony attended by the community at large and marked by a procession of 89 pupils, who marched "two abreast in a column" from the old school house to the new. The school bell was taken from the old structure and placed in the cupola of the new. Unlike the undertaking of the old school house, records pertaining to the planning and construction of the new school house are well preserved.
The public school, however, was not the only use to which the property at 15 North Front Street was put. In 1828 a Classical School was established by a subscription of New Paltz's most prominent families. For a period of 5 years, until The New Paltz Academy was incorporated by an act of the New York legislature on April 12, 1833, the building served as both the village's public school, where an English curriculum was taught (tuition was set at $15 per annum) on the lower floor, and The Classical School, where a classical curriculum was taught (at $25 per annum) on the upper. In 1833 The New Paltz Academy building was built on the eastern shore of the Wallkill River. This structure burned in 1884 but was soon rebuilt. In February 1886 instruction began in the new Normal School, which is the direct predecessor of the current State University of New York campus at New Paltz.
On December 7, 1874 the property at 15 North Front Street was sold by the school district to John Drake for the sum of $580. In 1888 Drake acquired the blacksmith shop, located at what is now 15 1/2 North Front Street. Some fourteen years after his initial purchase, Drake expanded the former school house, as reported in the October 8, 1886 New Paltz Independent : "John Drake's House presents a greatly improved appearance since it as been raised, so as to make it full two story." These are the proportions and dimensions that still define the structure to this day.
The properties at 15 and 15 1/2 North Front Street have remained in private hands since John Drake's purchase. To date, seven owners have been recorded since Drake, though records for the period 1888 through 1924 are missing. The buildings have been used, during this period, as both residential and commercial spaces. The residents living at 15 North Front Street the longest were Nicholas and Barbara Manolakes (1947 to 1983); the two structures have been at times used as apartments, a blacksmith shop, a mechanical repair shop, a pet supplies store, an insurance agency, a tatoo parlor, a toy shop, and an exotica store.
In 1976 Boy Scout Troops 172 and 272 erected the plaque that still adorns the north (front) side of the building. In 1984 the owner offered the property for sale to the Huguenot Historical Society, which declined the offer. In 2002, new owners began an historically sensitive restoration of the facade of 15 North Front Street, which had fallen into disrepair.
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