By Jack Fischer
All too often, we are caught up in our modern fast paced lives. For better or for worse, as more present and future oriented mindsets have become the norm, curiosity of the past has become a casualty. We all come to this school every day without its story crossing our minds. It’s time to take a step back and look at how our school and town came to be.
At the time of the first European contact with the Lower Hudson Valley, this area was inhabited by the Sint Sinck Indians (whose name would eventually lend itself to “Ossining” and “Sing-Sing”). Before Briarcliff existed as an official village, this region was considered the countryside, in stark contrast to New York City. Upon the American Revolution in the late 1700s, the family that owned the land in Briarcliff and the surrounding area lost it due to loyalty to Britain. In the 1890s, a wealthy businessman named Walter Law bought the land between current day Pleasantville and Old Briarcliff Roads and dubbed it Briarcliff Farms. (The original confiscated estate’s name was “Breir Cliff”, whose origins are unknown.) In 1902, Walter Law finally had it incorporated, or established, as a village. When he died in 1924, his obituary read: “Briarcliff Manor, in fact, was practically built by Mr. Law … It has grown and prospered and is now one of the finest and best-governed municipalities in the country.”
The first public school in Briarcliff was built in 1865 (around the time of the Civil War) long before the incorporation of the town. Sitting on Pleasantville Road where the 9A ramp exists today, it provided an education to farm children during the off-season. Two years later, a man named George Todd founded another, named The White School (after its paint color). He taught all grades – save 9-12, which did not exist in a public setting – and was our first principal. Todd school would later be named after him. In 1898, the White School site was sold to the district for $42 and a new building was built. Even after it was improved in 1903, (just after the village was incorporated) it was too small to accommodate the growing population and the general higher demand for education of the era.
In 1908, the district bought the land near Law Park and the pool where the Atria is now and opened a new school building there three years later. It held only kindergarten through eighth grade. Students who wanted to move on to high school had to go to Ossining until 1919 when the high school curriculum was added, although there were only four students in the first graduating class (1923). However, high school enrollment grew and in 1928 a second building was added on the same site to serve as a high school.
As Briarcliff grew as a commuting suburb in the 40s, the complex quickly grew too small. In the early 50s the district acquired (indirectly from the Cadman family – remember Coach Cadman?) the land at the end of Ingham Road (where Todd is today) and began building an elementary school for K-6. It was too small before it was completed. It was then expanded and finally opened in 1953. The playground was a jungle gym complete with trapezes and swings. It was replaced in 1978 with a short lived community built playground and in the late 80s was replaced with a modern playground that lasted until the early 2000s when it was renovated yet again and dedicated to Coach Cadman. The blacktop, the place of countless kickball games, was always there. When class sizes again began to outstrip space it was renovated again in 1956 to double in size. The three sloped “finger” wings, the gym, and the library were added, but it could still barely accommodate surging enrollment. In the late 50s and early 60s, Albany tried to force a merger between Briarcliff and Pleasantville but failed, leaving Todd to be expanded again. In 1964, the music suite, art rooms, and several more classrooms were added. However, even with this expansion the population was growing so much that the Todd and Atria setup would not work for long. After years of pressure, Albany finally caved and provided funds for a new high school.
In 1966, the district finally bought the land the current high school sits on. When the new building opened in 1971, a complicated shuffle took place. In the end, Todd remained the elementary school and served grades K-5, the building at the Atria became solely the middle school, with grades 6-8, and the new high school held 9-12. The town pool was also renovated from little more than a pond to its current size in 1977.
However, this arrangement didn’t last long. When enrollment temporarily shrunk, the middle school (at the Atria) was closed permanently in 1985. (6th grade returned to Todd, and 7th and 8th squeezed into the new high school with 9-12, using a staggered schedule where high schoolers actually came earlier in the day.) When the building was town down in 1996 after being briefly rented to Pace, a time capsule was found in the corner stone but its contents had not survived. Luckily, the old middle school building is still within living memory. “It was beautiful,” said Ms. Craven. There were huge windows, a massive auditorium, high fourteen foot ceilings, and stone sinks (think Harry Potter). Some called it “The Alamo” due to its striking resemblance. “It was huge, old … it had a lot of character,” said Mr. Chervin.
When overcrowding again became an issue in the early 90s, an addition was added to the high school that few are aware of. In 1995, they began building the guidance/language wing in the back of the school (denoted by the different colored tiles on the floor), along with the modular rooms at Todd, the auditorium, and the orchestra room. (Prior to this, the band and orchestra shared the current band room, and plays were held at other schools.) The new wing served mostly as a middle school within the high school. The two-floor library of the day was also eliminated to make space. “The upstairs library was dark and dead … and actually quiet,” said Ms. Lee. It was mostly tables and areas where teachers worked, accessible by spiral staircase in the center of the library where the outdoor area is today. Typing, or “keyboarding” classes were held there. The current computer labs were classrooms, and the language lab was a conference room adjacent to the principal’s office (the nurse’s room doubled as the principal’s office, as the current lobby was outdoors and the current office science classrooms). There was also a smoking patio where the outermost part of the cafeteria is today. Students also used dishes and silverware in the cafeteria, and used the trays as sleds in the winter. While there was no hockey, lacrosse, or swimming, there was a ski team.
In 2000, the final renovation of Todd was initiated, adding the “multipurpose room” and the new wing. The current day middle school also started construction and opened in 2003, finally pulling grades 7 and 8 from the high school, and 6 from Todd. In 2001, the modern day pavilion at the pool was finished, completing the face of Briarcliff as we know it today.
Historical photos: http://bit.ly/I0zhev