From Masten Park High School to City Honors:- Table of Contents

From Masten Park High School to City Honors:
The 1897 Building

Click on photos for larger size and information

The 1832 cemetery


Judge Masten


The old Masten Armory across the street on Masten Avenue — destroyed by fire in 1928.

The Dodge Reservoir (Masten Playground & Wiley Stadium)


The 1897 School Building


The 1897 School Building


The 1912 Fire. Note the smoke emanating from the tower where the custodian lived.


After the fire


After the fire


After the fire

The site

The site was originally a farm lot of the Holland Land Purchase, then owned by William Hodge. In 1832, when Buffalo received its city charter, Asiastic cholera was raging in various sections of the country. In the event a serious epidemic might strike Buffalo, greater space for the burial of the dead would be required. For some time interments in the old Franklin Square Cemetery (on the present site of the Old County Building) had been prohibited and a suitable potter's field (and other new cemeteries) had to be chosen.

After much debate, this site was chosen. The cemetery extended from East North to Best Street, and from Michigan to Cemetery Street (named after an old Indian cemetery and in 1897 renamed Masten Street).

The cemetery fell into disuse. In 1886, it was closed and the graves moved to Forest Lawn. The site became Masten Park, named for Joseph G. Masten (1809-1871), a judge on the Supreme Court who in 1843 became Buffalo's first Democratic mayor (mainly remembered because he bought the fort on Delaware near North Street from the federal government and turned it into a residence, known for years as the Wilcox Mansion and now as the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site).

The 1897 School Building

When the city fathers decided that another school was needed to alleviate crowded conditions at Central High School, where enrollment had reached 2,000 students, this location seemed ideal. The ground was high, centrally located, was easily reached and already in the possession of the city.

The city spared no expense. On June 2, 1895, the Common Council appropriated $148,000 for the construction of a new high school building. Twenty-one school designs were submitted for consideration with the architectural firm M.E. Beebe and Son designated the the building's architect (perhaps best known for their design of the Brisbane Building next to Lafayette Square in downtown Buffalo).

Masten Park High School opened in September of 1897.

The school was built on the highest ground in the city. It could be seen from almost any part of the city. In appearance, with its white facade, the building was commanding. The lofty towers gave the school an easily recognized outline. The school was generally referred to as "the school on the hill."

Built like a castle, its massive walls were adorned with imported Italian ceramic terra cotta block. The poured concrete roof was decorated with Red Spanish tile on the outside and slate shingles on the backside. The glazed finish on the fired ceramic terra cotta block made it self-cleaning. On inclement days, raindrops rolling down the wall helped retain the white facade.

The 1912 Fire

The school custodian had living quarters in the tower. On Wednesday, March 27, 1912, at 10 a.m., a fire broke out in the tower. The students were startled by the fire gong. The 1,200 students, who thought they were having a fire drill, marched out to safety. They moved outside and stood in the slush (two inches of snow on the ground) and cold watching the school being destroyed.

The principal, Frank "Pop" Fosdick, was almost killed when he went back inside the blazing building to make sure everyone was out. A falling timber narrowly missed him, and he had to be treated for shock.

Here is an account of the fire published in the "The School on the Hill: A Brief History of Fosdick-Masten Park High School," by Helen Mueller Ulrich:

Wednesday, March 27, 1912, began like any other morning at MPHS. It was to be just another day in the life of students and faculty members. Suddenly teachers on the second and third floors noticed smoke coming through the ventilators. Debris was falling from the roof. Obviously, there was a fire in the building. Students were told to walk down the stairs to the exits even before the gongs were sounded.

Once they heard the gong, the remaining students assumed there was to be a routine fire drill. They proceeded to march to the exits as they had been trained to do. Boys stationed in the corridors were instructed to repeat: "Walk! Walk! There is no danger!" Several teachers, fearing that the hallways might be congested, had their students use the fire escapes which led from all floors into the court formed by the two wings of the building.

Students and teaching staff proceeded outside through the many exits in a calm and orderly fashion. In a short time the building was empty. Eleven hundred pupils and their teachers huddled together in the springtime slush, looking up at the attic where the fire had started.

Ironically, the sprinkler system had been installed in the basement, as was the current practice. It was assumed that a fire was most likely to start in the basement, since the heating plant and dynamo for lighting the building were located there.

Within 30 minutes the school was ruined. The intense fire had completely destroyed the beautiful building.

Teachers were able to rescue their coats on the way out; their cloakroom was on the first floor. Attempts to retrieve students' possessions from the basement lockers had to be abandoned. One group carried out the collection of treasured American flags.

The leader of the orchestra, with several boys to assist him, saved the musical instruments in the auditorium. But then the center section of the roof fell, and only the firemen were permitted to enter the building.

Because of the location of the school in the park, long lines of hose had to be stretched, causing the pressure to be reduced. Shock and sadness registered in the upturned faces, but at a given signal the spectators joined in singing the "Alma Mater."

Sadness over the total loss of the magnificent school was mitigated by the fact that there had been no serious injuries or deaths during the grueling experience.

Principal Fosdick had been slightly injured by falling brickwork as he rushed into the main entrance. He wanted to warn those attempting to snatch some clothing from the basement lockers to leave at once.

In a later "Chronicle" article on the fire he commended Mastenites for "coolness and devotion of the teachers, as forgetful of themselves they rendered every possible aid to the scholars; the manliness and bravery of the boys as they gave encouragement and cheer to the girls and others who needed their assistance; the strength of real girlhood as they rose superior to all feeling of selfish fear. It was a magnificent exhibition of the true Masten Park spirit. It was the greatest victory the school ever won."

In the days following the holocaust the staff could calmly survey the ruins and assess the losses. Gone was the beloved trophy case. Only two hard-earned cups were left. In three pieces they saw the 1910 American Literary Society cup awarded for the promotion of interclass debate. The copper cup won by the MPHS relay team from Lafayette on Feb. 8, 1907, stood there proudly.

As the melted metal of the remaining cups was examined,it was thought that the evidence of past victories should be melted and molded into a huge silver platter with the inscriptions of the various former trophies engraved on its surface. Regrettably, in the maze of other details of greater importance, the platter project never reached fulfillment.

The piano was a total loss, but the library, with its wealth of reference material, was unharmed. Most valuable student records and correspondence fell victim to the fire. Those that were salvageable were entrusted to Lafayette High School. What was left in the lockers was taken to Police Station #6, where students could claim their possessions.

The fire also rekindled a legend that the school was cursed because it was built on a cemetery. A few years later, the conviction was reaffirmed when the Masten Armory across the street also burned down.

The burned out building was razed and a new building was built in 1913-14. While waiting for the school to be rebuilt, the students attended annexes at Lafayette and School 59.

See also: Postcard #1 ..... Postcard #2


This page was created by the City Honors School Webmasters class under the supervision of Chuck LaChiusa
Color photos and their arrangement © 2005 Chuck LaChiusa

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