Article Series: 3/12
“Rockwell Helped the Growth of Education in Bristol”
In September of 1919, Albert F. Rockwell, proposed to quitclaim to the city for one dollar, twelve acres of South Street land, that he had purchased in 1910. This was to be used for the building of a new high school, athletic fields, and tennis courts. He said that he would pay fifty percent of the construction costs but the City of Bristol would be responsible for the remaining expenses. He also stipulated that the city would be required to purchased land bordering the high school on its north, extending from Main Street to Mellen Street. This was to be utilized for the construction of a boulevard.
Rockwell’s vision of a majestic boulevard and the community’s need for a larger, more comprehensive secondary school could both be accomplished when his proposal was overwhelmingly accepted in a city-wide referendum held on October 6th.
Secondary education within the community had begun back in 1883 with the introduction of a three-year advanced curriculum (high school courses); it was extended in 1885 to four years of study. Three town schools were permitted to teach this curriculum, District 1(Federal Hill School); District 3 (South Side School) and District 13 (the Academy in Forestville). According to the Town Report of 1886, nine students were members of “The High School Class of 1886”. Beginning in 1887, the community’s seventy-seven secondary school students were merged and instructed by two teachers on the second floor of the South Side School. This became the site of our community’s first high school.
The Annual Report, a year later, recognized that a community vote approved the building of a separate school. A site committee was designated to select the location. The corner of Summer and Center Streets was chosen, with the land condemned and acquired by “eminent domain”. Theodore Peck, a Bristol-born architect, was selected to design the building and construction began in 1890. At a total construction cost of $35,000, the school was ready to open in the Fall of 1891. The first graduation ceremonies at the new facility took place in the Spring of 1892.
Henry E. Cottle, a Harvard University graduate, became principal in 1905. In 1908, due to a rapidly increasing student population, he recommended a six-room Center Street addition on the school’s eastern side. This would double the school’s capacity.
Cottle served as principal until 1943, when at age seventy, he was forced to curtail his career, having reached the mandatory retirement age. Remaining vigorous and alert, he continued to contribute to the community for the next twenty-three years.
The city’s growth continued. During the thirty years from 1890 to 1920 there was a population increase of 280 percent within Bristol. A large influx of immigrants, seeking industrial employment, added a significant number of children to the school roles. As a result, The City of Bristol, as well as Albert F. Rockwell recognized the need for a new high school to meet the community’s educational responsibilities.
Wilson Potter, a renowned New York architect especially in the area of school design, was selected to create the plans for the new facility. Over the years, he designed scores of schools in New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania with several later being listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Wilson had previously designed the Bristol Public Library, which opened in 1907.
Disappointed that progress towards the construction of the school was moving slower than he had stipulated, Rockwell held a joint meeting on June 6, 1921 with the Board of Education and City Council. He presented a revised plan and time schedule for its completion. Both parties suggested that Rockwell be the supervising head of operations for the construction. He agreed to assume this role as a non-paid position. Rockwell said city workers would perform the construction, with outside personnel hired only as necessary. This would provide considerable savings.
Groundbreaking ceremonies were held on October 8, 1921.
After Rockwell took on the role of head of operations for the project, he announced a new wage scale, lower than previously established. The Bristol Trade Union Council, re-established in 1920, would not work with non-union workers nor accept salaries below their prevailing standards. Twenty-five union laborers walked off the job for eighty days. They were supported with “sympathy strikes” by the bricklayers’ and masons’ unions. This tipped the scales, with Rockwell being forced to return to the union wage scale.
The new Bristol High School, with an enrollment of 560 students, was opened in September 1922. Its first graduation ceremonies were held in June 1923. The total cost for the building and necessary equipment was $932,000. Containing 96,000 square feet, this school soon became known as, “The Million Dollar High School.”
The official dedication ceremony was held on January 30, 1923 with three thousand in attendance. Mayor John F. Wade, former Mayor Joseph F. Dutton, Principal Henry E. Cottle, Judge R.S. Newell, Board of Education Chairperson Newell Pierce and Albert Rockwell conducted the event, at which Rockwell was designated as an honorary graduate.
Chairperson Newell Pierce’s address stated: “The honor of the city will dwell here; this building will give fame and glory to the city. It will hold here and attract citizens of the very best class. It adds strength to all businesses and value to all property. Every farm is richer, and every piece of real estate in the city is worth more…Churches will be stronger and life richer and better because of this building.”
Being classically designed, this facility provided every provision needed in a progressive secondary school. Superintendent of Schools, Karl A. Reiche, and Principal Henry E. Cottle contributed significantly to its educational design.
The north wing contained a gymnasium with locker rooms, a swimming pool, and a 900-seat auditorium. These would accommodate community activities during non-school times. The auditorium served as a municipal theater for many years, being well-equipped as the home of the Bristol Community Theater. Summer school theater classes, as well as summer productions sponsored by the Manhattan Theater Colony of New York were held for several years in the auditorium.
A spacious library was located on the first floor. Several science laboratories, in addition to art and music rooms were located on the third floor. The outdoor facilities included fields for a variety of sporting activities, including a quarter mile cinder track and four tennis courts.
Recognizing that a limited number of graduates continued to college, in 1925 a Cooperative Industrial Program was initiated. Students spent half of their time in high school instruction with equal time devoted to career preparation at industrial sites. A secondary benefit of this program was that it assisted in alleviating a growing student population that was beginning to challenge the new school’s capacity. This program ceased during the depression years, creating a major challenge at the high school.
Eight years after its construction, as Bristol’s population continued to increase, the boulevard school was bursting at the seams; no longer able to accommodate the required number of students. Fortunately, the city had not disposed of the former Summer Street high school. Beginning in September,1930 the entire ninth grade class was transferred back to this building. Each succeeding freshman class was educated at the Summer Street campus for the next thirty years. This became known as “The Freshman Building” and is currently home of The Bristol Historical Society. In 1930, the boulevard school had an enrollment of 883 students, while the freshman class included 441 students. A year later there were 1105 students at the senior high school. The population crisis was not over!
During the early 1930’s the Board of Finance vetoed a federal matching grant for $650,000, designated for an addition to the overcrowded facility. This certainly did not assist with the overcrowded conditions.
In 1936, just in the nick of time, the Associated Spring Company donated the former Garrigus Machine Company plant at the corner of Riverside Avenue and Mellen Street to the city, to be utilized as a technical department of the Bristol High School. The New Departure and Ingraham Companies donated the necessary machinery and tools essential for its operations. Technical students would be housed in this building, only returning to the boulevard school for a scattering of essential courses. The technical department was operative until 1959.
Despite the overcrowded conditions, two city-wide referendums in 1955 and 1956 defeated the proposal to build a new high school. A third vote, more economical in scope and recognizing the eastward shift of the community’s population density met with approval.
In the Fall of 1959 Bristol Eastern High School opened on King Street with George R. Perry appointed as its first principal. He was the former Principal of Bristol High School. Bristol Central High School, which occupied the renamed Bristol High School on the boulevard, was directed by Principal Charles Marsh, former Principal of the Freshman Building.