New Canaan Now & Then: Center School


New Canaan Now & Then: Center School

Starting in 1795, classes for New Canaan’s School District No. 1 were held in a converted blacksmith’s shop on Park Street near where 63 Park Street now stands. Classes were then held in what is now 40 Seminary Street, but this building also proved to be inadequate. Eventually in 1853, a new school building was built on  the east side of Park Street somewhere between Cherry and Elm, but  before any classes could be held there, it burnt down. So for two years, classes were held in the Town House located at 13 Oenoke Ridge and is now the headquarters of the New Canaan Museum.

Center School ca. 1909. A caption on the photo says that men are “moving the Old School House to make room for the new brick school house.” It faced Maple Street. Photo courtesy of the New Canaan Museum & Historical Society

Finally in 1855, Center School was built on the corner of Maple and South Street.  Originally the building was a simple 2 floor square  wooden structure with a cupola on the center of the roof for the bell. Even though the building was designed to hold 180 students, it was still by far the largest school building in New Canaan. All other ten schools were simple one room buildings, but the size of Center School did not mean that the education at Center School was any better. Students from the ages of six to sixteen were taught subjects such as spelling, arithmetic, history, and philosophy. The students’ parents had to provide the supplies for the classrooms along with the textbooks, but the parents also elected the teachers each year. Each classroom was heated with its own stove (steam heat had been voted down as being too expensive) and its own water pail and cup for drinking until running water was installed in 1893.  By 1894, enrollment had reached 240 students. This warranted the addition of four more classrooms to the front of the building along with a belltower. In total these improvements cost $2,500, which were seen as too extravagant in the eyes of many in town. This building with all of its alterations can be seen in the above picture that was taken sometime around 1900.

However in 1908, it was clear that an entirely new school building was necessary.  Instead of  buying a new piece of land and building the new school there, the old wooden building was moved back a few hundred feet allowing for the new school to be built while classes continued. By this point, attitudes in town around spending money on education had changed and $45,000 was set aside to build a new Center School. In 1910 when the new brick Center School (complete with future knockout pit) was finished, the old wooden building was auctioned off to B.P. Mead for $395, who tore it down within a week. With a few additions in 1918 and 1940, the new Center School served the town until it was torn down in 1984.

“New Canaan Now & Then” is presented in partnership with the New Canaan Museum & Historical Society.

12 thoughts on “New Canaan Now & Then: Center School

  1. ‘ torn down in 1984’. ..not only the building but the destruction of a pillar of excellence in education that put New Canaan on the map. A huge mistake by then Board of Education and Town administrators.

  2. Wonderful childhood memories from Center School. Monkeybars, dodgeball, hopskotch,
    And friendships built. When West School was built I moved there after Christmas break. It was shiny and brand new but did not have all the memories of Center School.
    My daughter started kindergarten in Center School…so many memories. 💗

    • Hi Pamela,
      You can find some photos of the brick building by clicking on the link in the body of this week’s “Now & Then” installment to our “knockout pit” story from 2014. I’m sure we’ll have a future N&T that focuses on the brick building, too.

  3. What I find interesting is that they cared about costs back in the day because now they only want to increase budgets by 5+% every year. With my 3rd kid now entering high school, I’ve more than an anecdote when I say that the quality of education in some classes is the same as online school or Youtube. There is no interaction between teacher and students and yet we have one of the most expensive school districts.

  4. My mother, Elizabeth Hoyt, attended Center School in its early days and my sister and I went there in the 1950’s. I enjoyed my school, my teachers, my friends and even the knockout pit. Some of my kindergarten playmates are among my good friends today – some 70 years later. Like many students, I got to walk to school, walk home for lunch and then back for the afternoon. Center School set me on a good academic and social path. I was sorry to see it destroyed but it lives vividly in my memory.

  5. This article is so interesting! The Town does have all sorts of history now and then, worth the telling! Thanks Newcanaanite….and I particularly enjoyed reference to the shoemaking industry! I am sure Nancy Harding could tell us more. Nancy, wasn’t there a small shoe making shop somewhere near the house which was across the street from the Library? Love to hear any more you have on this! Terry Cody Spring!

    • Terry, It is my understanding that the Justus Hoyt house, in which I was so fortunate to grow up, included a shoe making shop addition on its south side. Unfortunately the house, which was home to 12 generations of Hoyts in its lifetime, has gone the way of Center School and New Canaan is the poorer for that.

  6. Center School was an incredibly special place. I was privileged to have taught kindergarten and first grade there. Although it has been closed for almost forty years, we celebrated Center School at the New Canaan Historical Society on June 8, 2019. Hundreds of former students, parents and faculty attended.
    There is a website with hundreds of class photos, photos from that day, Hazel Hobbs’ movie Center In On Kids, Pris Carroll’s The Center Swingers albums, a history of Center School complete with photos many from the archives of the New Canaan Museum and Historical Society, and much, much more, including a home page photo taken by Michael Dinan who attended Center School!
    Please enjoy~

  7. Thanks for great article and photos.
    Center School was a wonderful school and will stay alive in our hearts and souls forever!

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