Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Columbian School/George Washington Carver Academy

The city of East Orange is no stranger to fine architecture when it comes to public school buildings. These handsome brick structures are peppered throughout the streets, with many dating back to the 1800's. One noteworthy example of this standard of architectural elegance and excellence was the Columbian School in the Ampere neighborhood.


The three story, eight room brick building was constructed on the corner of Grove street and Springdale avenue in 1892. The land it was built on was originally grazing land for the cows of nearby dairy farms.

The relatively large building originally accommodated grades k-3. As the city around the school grew, so did the need for more space. In 1912, several new sections were added to the building. One of the new additions was a beautiful large auditorium.

The auditorium had large windows separated by tall pilasters. The stage was flanked by smooth, corinthian capped columns. Another highlight of the room was the mezzanine level that included a projection room.

Surrounding the ceiling was an ostentatious stacked plaster crown molding. The hand carved display featured a floral rim perched atop a large cove. Below that existed a denticulated egg-and-dart detail. In addition, several more rows of hand carved ornamentation were banded around the bottom rim.

The field of the ceiling also had a plaster grid that extended all the way to the crown. The new auditorium was a monument to the skill of the Italian masons who constructed it.

Another interesting feature of the school was the library. The large room was the highest point on the building. The hallway leading to the room was lit by skylights. Stained glass transom windows were installed over the doorways, and were still intact over a hundred hears later.

Eventually the population of the city began to dwindle. The school was closed, and was reborn as the George Washington Carver Academy.  They made a number of improvements to the building, including replacing all of the windows with new aluminum models. The GWC academy continued to use the building until 2006, when a pervasive mold problem forced them to vacate the historic school.

The structure sat vacant for a decade before I caught word that it was supposed to be demolished. Plans called for a brand new school to be built on the site. Usually when an old school building is torn down with the intent of being rebuilt, I quell my preservationist reservations and tell myself "at least the students will have a brand new, state of the art school building". However, something about this decision bugged me. While there are still tons of historic schools in use around the city, there are also an abundance of vacant lots. The city is also designated a "transit community"; a distinction that allows incentives for development through tax breaks. This, paired with historic tax credits that the structure was certainly eligible for, could have offset the cost of reusing the building significantly. Alas, my feelings were dashed as demolition began in late 2016. A few months later, the site was but a pile of brick and twisted steel.

This sad but all too common story is one that will certainly be repeated. Major cities all across the state are choosing to replace their historic schools, rather than sell or reuse them. A few notable cases being Trenton Central High School and the former Newark Technical School. As these stories continue to unfold, I will do my best to continue to tell them.


  1. More great work. Keep it up!

  2. The architecture in these historical venues is incredible. Very interesting!

  3. Graduated from Columbian in 1967. Sorry to see it go.


  4. Hey M. Lago, I too graduated in 1967. Also sorry to see it go. I visited it for old time sake in the mid 80's. It had not changed much.

    Thanks to the author for the great article and sorry to see it go. I heard that Clifford Scott HS is gone too.

    B. Sandor

  5. Clifford Scott HS's complex has become the city's Ninth Grade STEM Academy. Scott and EOHS were earlier merged into East Orange Campus High School. EO STEM and EOCHS are a block apart; the latter is in three remodeled Upsala College buildings.