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School came a tumblin' down

| Thursday, July 28, 2005

It was a hot and humid day, much like we've been experiencing in recent weeks, but that didn't stop spectators from grabbing a bird's eye view of activities in North Charleroi.

The day was June 12, 1974, and the original North Charleroi Elementary School was disappearing from the community scene.

Completed in 1912, the three-story, red-brick building overlooking the Monongahela River was being razed to make way for a new structure as part of a long-range building and renovation program in the Charleroi Area School District.

The demolition project was done by Matthew Canastrale, of Rostraver Township, through a sub-contract with Mood Construction Co. Inc., of Fayette City, general contractor for the $350,000 project. Robert Lettrich, of Charleroi, was the architect.

An annex to the original building constructed in 1937 and facing Olive Avenue remained intact and was scheduled to house students in kindergarten through grade three during the construction and renovation work.

The new building, completed in early 1975, was a two-story addition to the annex. The top floor included a kindergarten area and a classroom.

The ground-level floor was designed to be used as a storage area that could be converted into a classroom, if needed, and a boiler room. A playground occupied most of the area outside the addition.

The original North Charleroi Elementary School, the annex and the new facility were familiar sights to motorists traveling along Route 88. You couldn't miss it because you had two stop signs at that busy intersection - one coming down Fourth Street from the North Charleroi Hill district and another traveling south on Route 88 (Pennsylvania Avenue). That intersection remains very busy today and motorists will recognize two other "landmarks" there - Thorpe's New Dawn Personal Care home, which now occupies the site of the former school buildings, and Double M's Pizza.

As someone who attended North Charleroi Elementary School in the 1940s, I remember other businesses at that corner. They included a Clover Farm food market, Cuddy's drug store, and Paul the Barber's shop. Just up the street from the building that now houses the pizza shop and apartments were a butcher shop and a dairy bar.

Regis Lee was the police chief in North Charleroi for many years, and he also was a familiar and friendly face to students at the school, as well as motorists who heeded his instructions when he was directing traffic at the intersection of Route 88 and the Charleroi-Monessen Bridge.

Like the other neighborhood schools in the Charleroi Area School District, the North Charleroi facilities eventually closed. The buildings housed a job training and placement center for several years, but remained vacant for some time before Thorpe's gave it a handsome facelift and opened the personal care home last year.

While the original North Charleroi Elementary School was razed in June 1974, another part of Charleroi Area educational history felt the pinch of consolidation some six months later. On December 2, 1974, the Charleroi Area School Board voted 8-1 to sell the Ninth Street School to Charleroi Borough for $1.

Constructed in 1897, the Ninth Street School was an awesome site, spreading between Fallowfield and McKean avenues. As described in the Millennium publication, Charleroi At Year 2000, the Ninth Street facility was "an unusual castle-type structure with a grand staircase dominating the center of the interior. There were two wide stairways - one from Fallowfield and the other from McKean - each featuring about 30 steps up to a landing at the very center of the building; then two more stairways with about 10 steps going up either side of the mezzanine-type second floor."

The decision by the school board to sell the structure in 1974 paved the way for demolition of the school and construction of the Char-House high-rise by the Washington County Redevelopment Authority and the Washington County Non-Profit Housing Corp.

The sale of the building and its eventual demise by a wrecking ball did not come without controversy or public outcry. Lengthy debate over the sale took place at the December 1974 school board meeting, with board members peppering Redevelopment Authority officials for more than an hour with questions about tax revenues and the long-term lease for the high-rise.

Today students attend classes at the Charleroi Area Elementary Center, which is part of the educational complex that also houses Charleroi Area middle and high school students in Fallowfield Township.

(Ron Paglia is a former newspaper reporter and editor. Anyone with ideas for his weekly column is invited to contact him at ronpaglia@verizon.net.)

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