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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

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Public School Buildings & Architecture: 1839-1871

by Diana Barrett

published: December 15th, 2012

Even though School District No.1, on the east side of the Grand River, was organized on May 9, 1835, three years before the incorporation of the village, there was no district schoolhouse until 1839, likely the result of the severe economic crisis of 1837. William Blakely, a Grand Rapids carpenter, joiner, and house-builder, constructed the first schoolhouse, built specifically for that purpose. The frame building stood on the north side of Fulton opposite Jefferson Ave.

Newly arrived in the village of Grand Rapids in 1839, young Joseph Hinsdill Galusha became the first teacher in the new schoolhouse. Teachers following Galusha were Warren W. Weatherly, O.R. Weatherly, Elijah Marsh, Seth Reed, and Thomas B. Cuming.

Seth Reed who came to Grand Rapids in 1842 at age nineteen to teach in the district school tells us, “The schoolhouse was a small wooden building with only one room.” If the schoolhouse was typical of the time, the teacher’s desk sat on a raised platform at one end of the room, a wood stove provided warmth, and there were two entrances, one for boys and another for girls. Separate privies for the sexes were placed at the rear of the lot and screened by a fence or shrubs. This schoolhouse served District No.1 until February 22, 1849 when it burned in a spectacular nighttime fire.


Fortunately for the community, plans for a new Union Schoolhouse were underway by the summer of 1848. The stone used in the school’s construction, quarried from the bed of the Grand River, would have given the exterior walls an appearance similar to the original sections of St. Mark’s Cathedral located on Division Ave. at Pearl St., the obvious attribute responsible for its common name, the Stone School. (continue reading)

The Stone School, housing pupils of all ages, had become so crowded by 1855 that drastic measures were needed. Removing the youngest children from the Union School seemed the most practical method. The District members, voting at a school meeting on December 3rd, approved a plan to build three Ward Schools for primary schoolchildren. (continue reading)

At approximately the same time that the Stone School was constructed on the east side of the river, in 1849, a one-story wooden structure was built in the less populated District No. 2 on the West Side. Shortsighted officials expected this schoolhouse to accommodate the entire West Side school population for the next 100 years. (continue reading)

A surplus of students and a scarcity of space led to the architect and architecture of the new District No.1 Union School, commonly referred to as Central School. It is the first local school building with some semblance of identifiable architectural style, in this case, a mid-western version of Italianate style. (continue reading)

The original building of the Coldbrook District was located near Taylor’s Tannery, which stood at the corner of Canal and Coldbrook Sts. The school was on the west side of Plainfield, south of E. Leonard, where later the Baldwin House was built. From there it was moved to the NE corner of Leonard and Plainfield where it stood until demolished to make room for the Sherman House, a hotel that stood from 1864 until it burned in 1885. (continue reading)

"While we congratulate ourselves upon the completion of the new Central School, let us not forget that our schools have barely kept pace with the material and social advancement of the people, and that our progress in wealth and population are so rapid that great diligence will always be required to keep the schools upon a level with the physical condition of our population." (continue reading)

Table includes information, when known, about the architect, builder, date built, location, and notes, for both High Schools and Primary Schools in the Grand Rapids public school system from 1849 to 1898.


Items available at the GR History and Special Collections, Grand Rapids Public Library

  • Baxter, Albert. History of the City of Grand Rapids, Michigan (With an appendix--History of Lowell, Michigan). New York, Grand Rapids: Munsell & company, 1891. Also available online.
  • Goss, Dwight. History of Grand Rapids and Its Industries. Chicago: C. F. Cooper, 1906. Also available online.
  • Lydens, Z.Z. The Story of Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1966.
  • Loretta Ortt Collection, #003, (Ms. Ortt was principal of Hall Elementary School from 1949-1967)
  • Central High School Collection, #178
  • Michigan One Room School House Records Collection, #229
  • Grand Rapids High Schools Collection, #316 (includes yearbooks)
  • Stocking School PTA Collection, #376
  • Board of Education Annual Reports
  • Search Grand Rapids Public Schools in the library Catalog for many other books and items related to the local schools.


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