History of the Fisher School

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The history of the Fisher School is an interesting segment of Westwood’s educational background. The school was built in 1845 on Clapboardtree Street in District 9 of West Dedham and is the only one-room schoolhouse still in existence in Westwood or Dedham. When Dedham schools were given names instead of numbers in 1867, the District 9 School was named for Ebenezer Fisher, a prosperous local farmer, legislator, and Revolutionary War veteran who had bequeathed $600 for its support. The Fisher School was one of three schools in operation in West Dedham when it became the independent Town of Westwood in 1897. The school closed in 1905 when enrollment dropped from a high of 40 pupils to 8. William Colburn purchased the schoolhouse, moved it about 200 feet to its Milk Street location, and used it for the storage of hay. Mr. Colburn or a later farmer removed two side windows replacing them with a sliding barn door (present east side). The wall of the recessed entrance was moved back to make more space for hay. The building was placed on boulders from a nearby stonewall which helped keep the structure ventilated over the years.

In 1994, the Board of the Historical Society took the courageous step to accept the gift of the school from owner Roger Pierce who transferred title for a fee of one dollar. A fund drive was established to move the building from his property on Milk Street/Meadowbrook Road and restore it to its 19th century condition. At the May 1994 Westwood Town Meeting, voters agreed to lease a site on High Street next to the Thurston Middle School to the Westwood Historical Society for $1 per year. With its graceful Greek Revival style architecture, the schoolhouse complements other historic buildings in the area.

With much support from the community, the restored Fisher School opened on Sunday, December 5th, 1999 at a Dedication Program. The Westwood Historical Society had been working since 1994 toward that day and appreciated all the encouragement and advice along the way. The window shades, the last finishing touch to the interior of the classroom, completed the restoration and construction at the end of 2000.

On the recommendation of representatives from the Massachusetts Historical Commission and the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, application was made to place the Fisher School on the National Register of Historic Places. The schoolhouse is the cornerstone of the Fisher School/High Street Historic District. Andrea Gilmore, then Director of Architectural Services for the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, stated in her report: “Part of the uniqueness of the school is that it has been altered so little in the 20th century. It is structurally sound and watertight, the two most important criteria for assuring the long-term preservation of a building.” The 28′ by 38′ structure retains many of its original features such as shiplap siding, handmade clapboards with skived joints, plaster blackboards, chalk trays, paneling, remnants of wallpaper, yellow pine flooring, and coat hooks.

The building was moved down Clapboardtree Street in the fall of 1995 and placed on a new concrete foundation at the High Street site. The exterior was restored to its 1845 condition replacing the farmer’s sliding barn door on the east side with windows replicating the originals as well as restoring the recessed front entrance with a door on either side, one for boys and one for girls. Some blown glass panes remain in the two original windows located in the coatrooms. Although the school was originally heated by a stove, a hot air furnace with registers was installed to provide heat with as little intrusion into the schoolroom as possible. Another concession to modern necessity was wiring the building for electricity. An addition at the rear was constructed so that the integrity of the schoolhouse would not be compromised for modern conveniences. Although a door was cut through to the addition, it was made to blend into the interior schoolhouse wall. The rear wall was clapboarded as in the original schoolhouse although the addition makes it an interior wall. The building is accessible to the handicapped and includes two handicapped bathrooms, a small kitchen area, storage space, and a stairway to the lower level. Linda DesRoches, an intern in the Boston University Preservation Studies program, donated her services and wrote the historic studies report. As technical advisor, she analyzed the exterior and interior paint chips recommending the proper paint to match the original paint colors.

The story of the interior restoration is fascinating. The plaster blackboards were restored by using a slating paint. The original lines for penmanship and musical staffs will be restored. The chalk trays are all original, also the coat hooks in the boys’ coatroom. Pendant lighting fixtures, a turn of the century style, were installed hanging from the restored plaster ceiling.

A large, floor-to-ceiling, wooden vent, that had been installed in 1882 to prevent carbon monoxide from building up in the classroom, was removed for restoration. A large piece of original wallpaper with a Boston maker’s name on the side, Josiah F. Bumstead, was discovered behind the vent. When the school was rewallpapered in subsequent years, the air vent was not removed. They papered up to it, not behind it. How fortunate for us that this piece showing the original design was preserved and hidden from the fading sun! The unique Gothic arch design of this paper, composed of a four-colored pattern of three arches and a decorative column, was reproduced by an artist, one arch being reconstructed. An interesting development occurred in reproducing the wallpaper. A flaw was discovered in the paper and there arose a dilemma of whether to reproduce the flaw or to take it out of the design. The experts from SPNEA and the Waterhouse Wallhangings disagreed. The decision was to reproduce the flaw as in the original wallpaper, but not in the reconstructed arch. Will you be able to find the flaw? The silk screens were then made, the printing of the paper completed under the direction of Waterhouse Wallhangings, Inc, and the reproduced paper hung over a paper liner base. The wallpaper, called “Westwood Gothic” is available through Waterhouse Wallhangings, Inc. with a small royalty benefiting the Westwood Historical Society. Since the schoolhouse was originally wallpapered with such a classic pattern, West Dedham must have placed a high value on education for its children.

The landscape reflects the way the schoolhouse appeared on its original site on Clapboardtree Street, an appropriate 19th century school yard. The handicap entrance blends into a walkway leading to the Thurston Middle School driveway with connecting pebbled/stone walks to the front entrance. A farmer’s stonewall is set in front of the schoolhouse defining a front assembly area and a pathway to the lower driveway and entrance. The large granite slabs for the schoolhouse front steps and walls are the Old Westwood Cemetery (corner of High and Nahatan Streets) granite bases, which supported the iron fence. Exterior lighting has been installed and the flagpole attached to the front peak of the schoolhouse replicating the original.

The restored schoolhouse is a living history setting for school programs for students from Westwood. Cooperative programs between the Westwood Historical Society and the Westwood School Department are in place. In the spring of 2000 the “1800s School Day” program was initiated with all of Westwood’s 3rd grade classes experiencing a 19th century day at the school. The living history setting is complete with appropriate furniture for the restored schoolhouse, 19th century teacher’s and students’ desks.

In addition to the school programs, the Fisher School will be a focal point for historical, educational, and cultural activities in the community. The restored schoolhouse will provide an ideal setting for changing exhibits of items in the historical collection. The building itself is being used for meetings and activities for all ages and groups of all sizes. The schoolhouse is open the first Sunday of the month from 2 PM to 4 PM, sometimes with guided walks into the immediate neighborhood including the oldest church in Westwood, the cemetery, which dates from 1752, and the home of Robert Steele, drummer boy at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

The Fisher School is the long needed headquarters for the Westwood Historical Society and its extensive collection of items pertaining to local history. The lower level is used for storage, conservation, and curatorial research. Modular units of storage rather than permanent wall structures are being used providing the proper layout for the collection including special items, such as maps and fabrics. The collection is being catalogued on the Society’s computer so that items can be easily found and information cross-referenced.

The Society has sought private donations and grants rather than public funding from the Town. Support from individuals, organizations, and businesses from Westwood and surrounding towns has been outstanding. Through appeals, grants, annual House and Garden Tours, dances, and sales of calendars and note cards, the Historical Society has raised over $300,000 to cover the restoration costs on a pay-as-you-go basis. However, funds continue to be needed to sustain the schoolhouse and programs and to build an endowment for the future.

The Society has relied solely on volunteers for its programming and fundraising. The Society continues to draw on the broad community base for volunteers, to serve as aides for school classes, programmers, curators, docents, secretaries, building caretakers, and organizers of fund raising events. The opening of the Fisher School has been an opportune time for the organization to broaden its scope and become an increasingly vital force in the community. The breadth of the programs planned involves a larger and more diverse group of individuals. The establishment of the Fisher School as a center of educational and cultural activities helps the Society in its efforts to preserve the character and history of Westwood.

At risk of omission, the many people who gave untold hours of volunteer work should be commended. The architect of the project was the late Mark Young whose plans guided the construction. Attorney Don Suchma assisted with the lease from the Town and legal obligations, Rob Lawrence was project estimator, Art Chapin was structural engineer, the late Norm Whiting and Jack Rudser were overseers of the early construction. Joan Swann, then President, oversaw the move and the early phases of the project. Andrea Gilmore and Linda DesRoches were technical advisors. Vice-President Ralph Buonopane steered the project to completion. Jerry Cronin as President, and his wife Ann who wrote the thank you notes, played an important part as well. Mina Otis created the period landscape design. Lura Provost as Secretary, later President, and Joan Swann as past President, carried out the fund raising, including publicity, grant writing, house and garden tours, and sales. Libby Johnson was the treasurer and bookkeeper for the Fisher School Fund. We are grateful for the cooperation of the Town of Westwood and the many others who helped with a myriad of roles, too numerous to mention.

The general contractors for the construction were R.T.P. Killelea and J.W. Anderson. The plumbing was installed by Bill Jacobs of William Jacobs Plumbing & Heating and the electrical work completed by Jim Reilly’s company RELCO. Babel’s Paint and Decorating Store donated the paint, C. Peirce did the painting, and George Munchbach, Jr. hung the wallpaper. Joe Petrucci was the contractor for the grading, landscaping, driveway, and walks.

To celebrate the opening of the Fisher School, the Westwood Historical Society commissioned the Pairpoint Glass Factory in Sagamore, Massachusetts to produce a cup plate. The design commemorates the Fisher School on its December 5th Dedication. The glass plate is in the popular cobalt blue color with a scalloped edge and features Margaret Philbrick’s drawing of the schoolhouse. The Pairpoint trademark and initials or monogram of the mould engraver is on each cup plate.

With the opening of the Fisher School, the Historical Society is proud that the only remaining one-room schoolhouse in Westwood has been restored. The Society looks forward to expanding its educational programs and serving the community.

For further information about the Society or the Fisher School project, please contact us at westwoodhistorical@hotmail.com

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