History

WHITPAIN PUBLIC SCHOOL 1895 BUILDING HISTORY

Briefly...

The Whitpain Public School building is a two-story schoolhouse located on the corner of Schoolhouse Road and Skippack Pike in Blue Bell, PA.  It has a distinctive style due in part to its large heptagonal turret on the front of the building, and Gothic-style inscription over the front of the building reading “AD Public School 1895.”  It was constructed in 1895 by local architects/builders using locally available materials.  The schoolhouse served to consolidate students from several one-room schoolhouses in the area, and to provide the first public high school (grades 9-11) in this rural area.  The classroom operations ended in 1929 after the construction of the newly expanded Whitpain Township Consolidated School building on adjacent property.  The Whitpain Public School building has been in use since 1895 serving first as a public school, and subsequently as the Whitpain police headquarters, overflow classroom space for the Whitpain School district, Whitpain Public Library, and currently serves as the headquarters for the Wissahickon Valley Historical Society and public museum.  The interior and exterior of the building are remarkably original.  The atmosphere inside the building is of the original late 19th century period schoolhouse, complete with its original slate chalkboards, wooden-plank floors and large glass windows.  The overall atmosphere has a remarkable likeness to what one would envision for the 1895 period, except the space is used as a museum and library rather than a classroom. The Schoolhouse Road and Skippack Pike sides of the property have a grassy yard and retain its original fieldstone walls at the perimeter in an essentially unchanged condition at the street edges.

First Floor Classroom, now a meeting place and museum

HISTORY OF THE WHITPAIN PUBLIC SCHOOL 1895 BUILDING

Beginning in 1887, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed general laws authorizing the establishment of High Schools.  By 1890, there were 180 High Schools in Pennsylvania.  Prior to 1890, secondary education in Pennsylvania was carried on largely by academies, which were established throughout the state by groups of local citizens or by religious denominations.  The school directors in Whitpain Township determined the need for a larger, modern school building.  In 1895, the Whitpain Public School building was built on the corner of Skippack Pike and School Road in Blue Bell.  The school was designed by Victor H. Baker, and the builder was Walter Shaeff of Blue Bell.  Local artisans assisted them, including Benjamin Franklin Famous and Henry Steinbright, both from Blue Bell.  The school was dedicated on November 20, 1895.  The master of ceremonies was Mr. William D. Beyer.  Ceremonies included addresses from the County Superintendent R. F. Hoffeckers, and a historical sketch of the public schools of Whitpain by Hon. Jones Detweiller, Secretary of the School board.  The school was described as “rather an artistic modern school building having somewhat of a Moorish appearance.”  When erected the building cost $3,698.54.  The front stone wall and grading cost $231.82.  The money for its construction came directly from the teachers' own salaries; the school board cut salaries from $45 a month to $40 a month for a period of ten years.  Mr. William D. Beyer was appointed as the first principal and teacher.

The original use of the Whitpain Public School building was a follows: grades one to eight were housed in the large room on the first floor; grades nine to eleven in the large room on the second floor.  Students on the lower end of the Township went to Ambler High School for twelfth grade; those in the upper part of the Township went to Norristown High School.  There were 30 to 40 students in the classroom depending on the chores and whether it was planting or harvesting time on the farm.  The upper grades, nine to eleven, had 18 to 20 students. The principal, William D. Beyer, rode his horse and wagon each day to school from E. Norriton.  Central heating was provided by a Smead-type system. There were no lighting devices, no electricity, and no plumbing in the building.  There were two small outside sheds used as lavatories; one for the boys and girls (torn down).  Drinking water was available at a pump located outside of the building.  The basement served as a cafeteria.

In 1916, the school board decided to consolidate six neighboring elementary schools, and the Whitpain Township Consolidated School building was erected in 1916.  It was constructed adjacent (45 feet) to the Whitpain Public School building.  It was a modern two-story brick building containing four classrooms plus ancillary rooms, and was built with electricity, plumbing, and steam-radiator heating.  In September, 1917, the new Whitpain Township Consolidated School opened for grades 1 to 8, while the Whitpain Public School building housed the high school grades 9 to 11.  After the consolidation in 1917, William D. Beyer became Assistant County Superintendent of Schools under A. M. Kulp.  When the Whitpain Township Consolidated School building became overcrowded in 1924, the first floor of the Whitpain Public School was used for 4th and 5th grade.  In 1929, a back section was added to the rear of the 1916 building.  It had additional classrooms on three floors, an auditorium, and a cafeteria in the basement.  The new combined building took over operations for elementary and high school grades, and the Whitpain Public School building was used only for auxiliary purposes at this point.  This ended the period of significance for the Whitpain Public School building.

Following the period of significance, the Whitpain Public School building was used intermittently as a public school over the years as follows. In 1947, because of increased enrollment in the Whitpain School District, the 1895 Whitpain Public School building was reopened for the 5th and 6th grades.  In 1957, as the population increased and Whitpain Township became more developed, the new schools of Blue Bell Elementary School (Symphony Lane), Shady Grove Junior High School (Skippack Pike at Lewis Lane), and Stony Creek School (Yost Road) were built.  The Whitpain Public School became the Township Administration Building and Police Station from the period 1957 through 1967.  For a short period in the early 1960s, the Wissahickon School district held kindergarten classes and special education classes on the first floor.  The last kindergarten class was held for part of the school year in 1963.  From 1967 through 1981 it housed the Whitpain Branch of the Wissahickon Library.  On July 27, 1981, Whitpain Township purchased the property from the Wissahickon School district for $500. 

The Wissahickon Valley Historical Society has preserved and continues to maintain the building using it as a focal point in the township.  Currently, it serves as a museum with artifacts on local history and a library with books and documents focusing on the genealogy and history of the area.

Second Floor Classroom, now a museum displaying local artifacts

HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE WHITPAIN PUBLIC SCHOOL 1895 BUILDING

The Whitpain Public School is historically significant for its association with the development of education in historic Whitpain Township in the late 19th and early 20th century.  During the years between 1895 and 1929, the Whitpain Public School was the only available education institution for secondary education for the many children from the neighboring farms and homes.  This schoolhouse is also noteworthy as a transitional school placed in time between the colonial one-room schoolhouses, which prevailed in this rural region for more than 130 years, and the Whitpain Township Consolidated School erected in 1916 and opened in 1917.  The Whitpain Public School 1895 building was a modernization of the one-room school to a much larger two-story, two-classroom school which provided elementary (grades 1 to 8) and secondary (grades 9 to 11) education.  It had a lunchroom in the basement, small side rooms and closets, large windows to provide ample light, and a Smead-type central heating system (modern for its time).  The Whitpain Public School building was superseded by the much larger four classroom Whitpain Township Consolidated School building, which contained plumbing, electricity, and central heating via steam radiators.  In contrast, the Whitpain Public School 1895 building had no electricity, no plumbing, and an inefficient central heating system.  In 1917, students from surrounding schools were consolidated  into the Whitpain Township Consolidated School building for grades 1 to 8,  and the Whitpain Public School building served as the high school grades 9 to 11.  This consolidation was due in part to the increase use of the automobile, specifically the school bus which the Township had in operation in 1916.  In 1929, an addition was added to the rear of the Whitpain Township Consolidated building.  It contained several classrooms, an auditorium, and cafeteria in the basement.  Concurrently, the Whitpain Public School building ceased operations as the public school.  The Whitpain Public School building has been well-preserved and maintained.  The building is almost completely original inside and out.  It is a fine example of an authentic schoolhouse of the period.  It continues to serve the public currently as a museum and home to the local Wissahickon Valley Historical Society.

ca. 1910 Whitpain Public School

BRIEF HISTORY OF EDUCATION IN WHITPAIN TOWNSHIP

There were five private, independent schools located in Whitpain Township when the Free School Act was passed in 1834.  All of these schools were one-room schoolhouses.  The Center School, built in 1800, was located just behind where the Whitpain Public School now stands.  The Center School succeeded an earlier schoolhouse built in 1766, the Centre School, which was torn down in the 1920s.  Its location comprises the current Blue Bell Elementary School bus garage (built in 1957).  The James School, built in 1786, was located on Lewis Lane on the property of Dr. James.  In 1837, it came under the control of the school district and a year later it became known as the Mount Pleasant School.  In 1849, the Mount Pleasant School was moved to Mount Pleasant Avenue on Morris Road.  It was torn down in 1971.  The Ellis School, built in 1787, located at Swedesford Road and DeKalb Pike, was open to students from Whitpain, Norriton, and Plymouth Townships.  Isaac Ellis, Andrew Knox and his wife deeded the ground.  It was torn down in 1864.  The Sandy Hill School was built in 1796 on ground deeded by Joseph Lukens.  It was rebuilt in 1859 by the school district and is still in existence as a private home at Five Points near Wings Field Airport.  The Centreville School or Centre Square School, built in 1825, was located on Skippack Pike above DeKalb Pike.  It was rebuilt in 1859, and in 1888 a second story was added at the cost of $1,296.48.  This addition became the high school (grades 9 to 11) until the 1895 Whitpain Public School was built.  After 1916, the Centre Square School became a private residence.  These five schools came under the aegis of the Common School System in May 1836, with the advent of the Free School Act of 1834.  This act established a system of free public schools and was the beginning of free education in Whitpain Township.  Other schools in the township before 1895 include:  the Shady Grove School (1855) on Lewis Lane near Skippack Pike, which was demolished in 1971; and the Franklinville School (1858) currently standing on Morris Road above DeKalb Pike, and is currently owned and maintained by the Whitpain Historical Society.

Partial view of the library, a public resource for local history of 
Whitpain, Ambler, Lower Gwynedd and other nearby areas

Wissahickon Valley Historical Society ©2017                 info@wvalleyhs.org