In the early 1900’s the schools of New Castle, Pennsylvania, started to become seriously overcrowded. In September 1911, to help alleviate some of the overcrowding a new high school was opened on Lincoln Avenue. The old North Street School was the only dedicated junior high in the city and the idea of building a new junior high school (or schools) also gained momentum in the coming years. In early 1920, after much study and debate, preliminary work got underway on a new junior high school on Cunningham Avenue. The Benjamin Franklin Junior High School, which served pupils in grades 7-8-9, was opened for classes in September 1922. The North Street School continued to serve as a junior high as well.
The school board decided in June 1926 to build another junior high school to alleviate overcrowding within the middle school ranks. The new school was part of a larger project that also featured improvements to the existing New Castle High School, the Arthur McGill School, and the Croton School. The new junior high building was to be built along Euclid Avenue in the North Hill District. In November 1926 the school board was able to purchase the large property at the corner of Mercer Street and Euclid Avenue for $6,000 from the heirs of Stewart Thompson.
Local architect A.L. Thayer began drawing up the plans in late 1926. Construction contracts were awarded the following July and work soon got underway on the yet unnamed “Euclid Avenue Junior High School.” The two-story structure, with three stories in one section, would feature over two dozen classrooms, a double gymnasium, an elevator, and a partial basement with a swimming pool. It was built to accommodate up to 1,250 students, but with room to expand.
An article in the New Castle News of February 24, 1927, mentions a school board meeting the night before where, “…it was suggested that Joseph Baldwin, one of the pioneer educators of Lawrence county be given some consideration when it came to the naming of the new school. Joseph Baldwin, as a young man, and attending college himself, established the first normal school in this section of Pennsylvania, which he conducted during the summer months. The school was conducted in the old Christian church at what is now known as East New Castle and was then known as Pumpkintown. This was in 1858. Among his pupils were Martin Gantz and W. N. Aiken, both of whom became prominent educators of this city and whose memory has been honored in the naming of local schools.”
The cornerstone of the new school was laid on Thursday, October 13, 1927. Due to inclement weather the ceremony was held in the auditorium of the New Castle High School. The New Castle News of the next day reported, ““Every time a new school building is erected our government is strengthened,” declared Dr. Martin G. Brumbaugh, a former Governor of Pennsylvania, now president of Juanita College of Huntingdon, in his address at the cornerstone laying exercises of the new Euclid Avenue Junior high school… Rabbi J. B. Meukes of the Temple Israel delivered the invocation. Dr. O. T. Corson, Commissioner of Education of Ohio, delivered an excellent address. State Senator George T. Weingartner congratulated the school board and the people in general for erecting such a fine building and he stated that he hopes the influence of this new school building on the boys and girls who attend it will go on, on, on. A.L. Thayer, architect of the building, complimented the school board on the new building and stated that everything possible was being done to make this one of the best equipped schools in the modern day.”
During a meeting at the North Street School on Tuesday, November 8, 1927, the school board unanimously decided to name the new building in honor of former U.S. President and patriotic icon George Washington. The New Castle News of the next day reported “…and a quotation from Washington was adopted as an appropriate inscription to be placed on the building over the entrance. The inscription is “Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge” – George Washington. The board in choosing the name for the new school said that many excellent names had been proposed (but) they thought it very fitting to name the school after the Father of Our Country.”
Meanwhile, four iron workers of the C.L. Gadd Construction Company of Pittsburgh were injured during an accident at the school site on Monday, December 12, 1927. The four men, working on the second floor, were injured when a heavy beam gave way and caused them all to take a fall. Two of them required extended stays in the hospital to fully recover. One of those men was Ira Gadd, the brother of the head of the company.
The building, though not entirely completed, was opened for classes with all city-wide schools on Wednesday, September 5, 1928. The cafeteria, auditorium, and library were still under construction, but were all completed in the coming weeks. Browne K. Thacker (1880-1954) served as the first principal and oversaw approximately 1,300 students. Thacker had previously served as principal of the Lincoln-Garfield School and the North Street School.
The magnificent new school was dedicated during a ceremony held on George Washington’s birthday, Friday, February 22, 1929. The building was open to public inspection throughout the afternoon, while the formal dedication ceremony took place in the auditorium beginning at 7:15pm. Many guests and dignitaries were on hand for the event. The New Castle News of Saturday, February 23, 1929, remarked, “While the original speaker picked for the dedication address, Dr. John A. H. Keith, State Superintendent, could not be present on account of illness, the speaker who did make the address, Dr. William M. Davidson, was an equally happy choice. Dr. Davidson in the superintendent of the Pittsburgh school system and one of the outstanding educators of the United States. His ability as a speaker matches his ability as an educator and those fortunate enough to be in the auditorium Friday evening heard an address that will long be remembered in educational circles here.”
George Washington Junior High School thrived in the coming years. Browne K. Thacker served as principal until succeeded by Nannie L. Mitcheltree from 1945-1953, William J. Wallace from 1953-1959, Fred Y. McLure from 1959-1964, and Charles T. James from 1964-1971. The school was improved and expanded over the years, including a major addition made to the rear of the building in the late 1960’s.
During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s the junior and senior high schools in New Castle (as well many others across the country) were often the scene of disturbances often related to the Civil Rights movement. George Washington seemed to be at the forefront of the disturbances in New Castle as the school was frequently in the limelight. The New Castle News of April 9, 1970, reported, “The atmosphere at two of the city’s schools, New Castle Senior High and George Washington Junior High, has been tense all week. Several fights between blacks and whites have occurred before and after school hours. Acting School Board President Joseph V. Cooper released a school board statement saying the police and school administration have been working together to maintain order among students traveling to and from school… The mayor said police will continue to patrol the school areas, if requested by the school administration.”
The New Castle News of March 24, 1971, ran a front page story about the troubles and reported this, “Classroom and student discipline at George Washington Junior High School has deteriorated so alarmingly that the school administration has enlisted the aid of interested parents in an attempt to curb the incidents that are a major contributing factor… Most of the students are considered no problem, while a minority of perhaps 2 per cent of the student population at the school causes most of the trouble. The problem (is) youngsters attempt to disrupt the school with incidents that range from minor incidents, like overturning chairs in the cafeteria during lunch periods, to major ones of considerable seriousness. Specific instances include: At least three assaults on students by other students last week. At least seven teachers have been assaulted since September. Two known cases of extortion, one of which involved money. In the second case a less ambitious student threatened a better one into doing his homework for him. Numerous cases of vandalism to school and personal property and thefts of everything from lunches to articles of personal clothing. These incidents all occurred in the school building itself and do not include anything that may have happened off school grounds…” An interested parent had this to say, “…school spirit today is “poor”, with some students even afraid to come to school, and all because of a troublesome minority in the student body.”
In early January 1971 the school board decided to make some changes and reassigned Charles T. James, who served as George Washington’s principal since 1964, to an administrative post. Byron “Barney” Bakewell, who soon took over as “acting principal,” got things going in the right direction with a series of productive meetings and rap sessions with students, parents, and educators held in the spring of 1971.
That positive effort was furthered in June 1971 when Amen Hassen, who previously served as the Assistant Principal at Ben Franklin Junior High and New Castle High School, was assigned as the fulltime principal. An article in the New Castle News of January 31, 1972, summed it up with, “Students, teachers and Principal Amen Hassen have turned things completely around at previously troubled George Washington Junior High School. The North Hill school last spring was often hit with false fire alarms, fires set in wastebaskets and other student troubles. This past fall, Hassen moved into the principal’s post and things have taken a dramatic reverse…” Despite the early progress unruly incidents popped up periodically throughout the next two years, but they were eventually curtailed.
The school continued to serve the city as middle school until it was shuttered due to budget issues in June 1982. At that time all 7th and 8th graders went to Ben Franklin, while 9th graders started attending New Castle High School. The school sat vacant for the time being.
In June 1987 the school board adopted a reorganization plan in response to declining attendance of its city schools. In the summer of 1988 the Arthur McGill, Mahoning, Rose Avenue, Lincoln-Garfield, and West Pittsburg buildings would all be closed, while the Harry W. Lockley, John F. Kennedy, Thaddeus Stevens, and West Side buildings would become primary schools and home to all kids in grades 1-3. George Washington, then sitting vacant, would be renovated and reopened as a city-wide intermediate school housing kids in grades 4-5-6.
The New Castle News of July 12, 1988, reported on the renovation efforts at George Washington with, “The third floor, which used to contain a cafeteria in its junior high days, has been redesigned into seven classrooms. The former third-floor music instruction area has also been changed to contain three additional classrooms… Also on the second floor, the room which used to be a library is being restored for use as a reading learning center… The first floor and its classrooms are also being renovated and will lead out to the new wing being built on the north side of the building… The side of the building which faces North Mercer Street and forms an “L” with the new wing will be used as the new entrance to the school… The auditorium is also being renovated, but without changing the original style of it. New seats are being installed on the first level. Balcony seating will consist of the restored auditorium seats which showed the least wear.”
The George Washington Intermediate School, able to accommodate up to 950 students, opened for classes in early September 1988. Ben Franklin Junior High School continued to house junior high-level students, until the newly completed junior high wing of the modern New Castle Junior-Senior High School was completed in 2005. Due to further reorganization the George Washington Intermediate School took on all city-wide 3rd graders as well in the fall of 2014. Reorganization plans saved the school and grand ole’ GW continues in operation today.
In June 1926 the school board approved the building of a new junior high school to be located on Euclid Avenue in the North Hill District. Construction of the new school, designed by architect A.L. Thayer, began in August 1927 and was named in honor of U.S. President George Washington in November 1927. The completed school opened for classes in September 1928. (c1940) Full Size
An artist’s rendering of the proposed George Washington Junior High School, designed by local architect Albert L. Thayer. (c1926) Full Size
The front entrance interior area of the school. (Photo courtesy of John Wesner) (c1995) Full Size
Modern day view of the front of the school, which now serves as an city-wide intermediate school for grades 4-6. (Jul 2010)
Another view of the massive school. (Jul 2010)
The weathered facade of the school with a few missing letters from the old school name. (Jul 2010)
A view of the old school and its distinctive smokestack/tower as you head south on N. Mercer St. (Jul 2010)
An aerial view of the grounds of the George Washington Intermediate School. (c2012)