The West Ward School,

Wakefield, Massachusetts

Preservation News: clues to restoration of the historic West Ward School are found in a dumpster!

Photograph will aid in West Ward School restoration

The old saying “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” has never been proven truer than in a recent discovery in a school department dumpster.

Retired teacher Peg McHugh was helping in the difficult task of cleaning out the Hurd School in order to ready the school to house Dolbeare students for a year while the Dolbeare construction project takes place.

At the prompting of principal Marge McGrath, she went out to quickly look over the contents of a dumpster about to be disposed of. “It was mostly full of broken chairs and things,” she said. But, in the corner of the dumpster, she saw something that surely couldn’t be trash.

It was a very large, very old photograph of an old wooden schoolhouse with figures standing before it and a figure in an upstairs window. The frame made the photograph even larger -- and much heavier, but Mrs. McHugh was successful in lifting the photograph out of the trash, and bringing it into the Hurd School. The picture wasn’t labeled, but the distinctive form of the schoolhouse was so close to the one at 39 Prospect Street, that Mrs. McHugh was certain that the photograph showed the West Ward School. She called Nancy Bertrand, who is working with the Historical Commission and the West Ward School Association to restore the West Ward School.

Little did she know that she was supplying the answer to a prayer.

The West Ward School, the only remaining example of four identical ‘ward’ or district schoolhouses built by the town in 1847, is a bona fide historic site, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But for some reason very few vintage photographs of any of the ward school buildings remain. In working on the restoration of the building, which will be partially paid for by a Massachusetts Preservation Projects Fund grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission, it’s necessary to carefully document any changes to the building -- even changes that are done to restore former features of the building.

Architects from Thomson Design Associates have carefully studied the building and found evidence of the existence of a cupola on top of the building, but its shape was unknown until Mrs. McHugh found the photograph in the trash.

“It’s just short of miraculous,” said a representative from the Historical Commission. “Even though the photograph almost certainly depicts the North Ward School, which served the students until the Hurd School was built, since all four of the schoolhouses were identical, we can be very sure that this was what the West Ward School looked like. The photograph also shows the fact that there were originally five windows on the front facade of the building, and shows the detail of the windows’ shutters. At approximately 100 years old, this photograph is the clearest and best representation of one of the schoolhouses -- and definitely the best depiction of the cupola. Thank God Mrs. McHugh has sharp eyes!”

The restoration of the West Ward School will ultimately try to replicate the appearance of the building ca. 1870 -- before any of the windows were boarded up. Since the school will approximate the appearance of the three other ward schoolhouses that have been torn down, it will, in a sense, represent the image of all of the schools that served the town in the earlier days of its history.

The West Ward School project is at present only partially funded; anyone wishing to make a donation to the project can do so by sending a check to the West Ward School Association, a nonprofit organization, at P.O. Box 1911.

Anyone interested in helping to preserve the school is welcome to join in the organization, which is actively seeking new members.

And anyone finding any photographs of the interior or the exterior of any of the ward schoolhouses before 1950 is encouraged to call Nancy Bertrand at 246-3070. “The Historical Commission and the Historical Society urge you -- when in doubt, don’t throw it out! We’ll be happy to come by and take a look at your photograph or object.” You’ll never know when what’s in your trash may represent treasure for town’s historical collection.


A portion of the recently discovered Ward School photograph, showing the cupola of the historic building.

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