PMHS Centennial Celebration
By Caitlin Winston
Class of 2022
Pelham Memorial High School is the centerpiece of the Town of Pelham. PMHS, the only high school in the Pelham Union Free School District, turned one hundred years old last month, having opened in September of 1921. The building stands at three stories high, built with native stone in a Collegiate Gothic architectural style. Its commanding towers, elegant arches, and striking wooden details work together to evoke an impressed feeling on all who lay eyes on it. Regarded as the “last word in buildings,” Pelham Memorial High School’s spectacular appearance inspires the students, teachers, and staff who walk into it to learn, collaborate, and serve to the best of their abilities.
Pelham Memorial High School’s beginnings were humble. The first graduating class of 1914 had two graduates.The high school at the time, Siwanoy School, was rapidly reaching its capacity. High School Enrollment grew from 53 in 1913 to 155 in 1919. Talks of a separate high school building were happening since Siwanoy had first enrolled high school students in 1910. While some considered renovating the existing school on Colonial Avenue, Dr. George Strayer, an expert brought in from Teachers’ College, supported another plan: an entirely new high school. Built on about seven and a half acres of land dubbed the “sand pit,” PMHS’s location was part of Colonel Philip Pell’s farm. The plans were set for a high school and field to be built on the Fairchild lot. Even though construction began in 1916, the outbreak of World War I threw a curveball in the School Board’s plans and delayed the project. To honor those who passed in World War I, the high school was renamed Pelham Memorial High School and dedicated in May of 1922. This unique name is not the only reminder of the wars. References exist around the entire school, including the phrase “Honor Here the Ideals for Which They Fought” engraved over the stage in the auditorium. These symbols serve as a reminder to the community even a hundred years later of the sacrifice and bravery of those Pelhamites who fought in World War I and other wars.
Finally, in 1919, Thomas James, President of the Board of Education, shoveled the first piece of land that would become Pelham Memorial High School. A month later, after a ceremony and parade, the cornerstone was laid for the $373,000 building. As part of its construction, special attention was paid to ensure that the adjoining "Roosevelt Field" with its track, baseball and football field would be one of the best high school athletic fields in Westchester County. Other notable features included the 800-seat auditorium as well as "well-lighted class rooms, ample locker rooms, up to date executive offices, domestic science, manual training and science laboratories, all furnished with the most modern equipment." (The Pelham Sun, February 1921). Two years later, in October of 1921, the first students entered the building for classes. The Class of 1922 with 19 students, was the first graduating class of Pelham Memorial High School. The high school was much smaller than it is now, but was built with the ability to be expanded. The section of the school facing Corlies Avenue was finished in 1924 and cost $350,000. The expansions of 1924 created a school twice the size of the original building. The Franklin Place section was completed in 1929 for $575,000 to accommodate at least 800 students. The building would remain this size for many years.
While the last section was being completed, America fell into the Great Depression. A group of citizens met at the Manor Club to raise money for materials so that murals done by local artists could be hung in the school’s library as part of a short-lived Civil Works Administration project called the “Public Works of Art Project.” Four pieces were commissioned, and work was done in the basement of Prospect Hill School. The artists were Leo Junker, Henry Day, C.J. Munro, C.S. Pietro, Joseph Farrelly, and William Thompson. The theme was “Youth in a Changing World.” The two main panels on either side of the PMHS library were designed to represent the development of the sciences and the development of the arts. The Pelham Priory on Bolton Avenue and “the little red schoolhouse” that stood on Split Rock Road were added to make the murals more personal to Pelham. The murals were installed in 1934. A third mural, which was on the panel where the clock is today, was installed. The fourth piece was the sculpture by Pietro which depicts a figure showing the way to knowledge to two students. The third mural went missing, but every other piece is still on display today, an irreplaceable piece of history and a daily reminder to students of the struggles of the Great Depression.
In the 1960s, Pelham Memorial High School was once again expanded. The reasons cited were that high school enrollment went up 30% in five years, more academic courses were being offered, professional services had been added, and teachers used more equipment and needed more storage. The plan for this addition was to add six modern science laboratories, remove two old ones, add six additional classrooms, enlarge 19 rooms, enlarge the shop areas, create more adequate music areas, and provide more space for the library, home economics, art, offices, and student activity areas.Plans for the building were drawn up thanks in part to a $5,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, which funded consultation on innovations and improvements with the Educational Facilities Laboratories. The addition was made out of concrete. The addition, plus the renovations for the old building, was projected to cost $1,600,000.
In 2001, plans were being drawn for a new Middle School addition adjacent to the current High School. Up until this point, the Junior High/Middle School was being housed in the same building as Senior High. However, increases in enrollment, classes being added, and a general lack of infrastructure needed for specific functions of the high school led to the building of a middle school. Besides some internal improvements, the high school and middle school campus as we know it today was completed.
In 2008, the Pelham Community supported a bond proposal that preserved the building by restoring and replacing the slate roof, stone masonry and other areas. The bond also transformed the building to meet 21st Century Learning needs by creating a modern info center in the library, renovating the auditorium, and updating technology systems in all classrooms to allow for the installation of SmartBoards, among other projects. During the renovations, sloped floors and a staging of what was once a junior auditorium were uncovered on the ground floor. This space was restored to its original purpose and is now known as Alumni Hall.
Though PMHS has gone through significant changes over the years, both structurally and through the student body that inhabits it, the school has remained a constant for Pelhamites over the years. It is the focal point and center of our community.
Current students, alumni, past and present teachers, staff and administrators, and Board of Education members as well as members of the Pelham community gathered on Ingalls Field on Saturday, October 16 to commemorate the Centennial year of Pelham Memorial High School.
The celebration to honor the historic building at the corner of Wolfs Lane and Colonial Avenue began with the playing of the National Anthem by the PMHS Jazz Band and Chorus. Remarks were shared from PMHS Principal Mark Berkowitz, Student Association President Caitlin Winston, Board of Education Vice President and PMHS Graduate Sue Bratone Childs and Dr. Cheryl H. Champ, Superintendent of Schools. Special guests at the ceremony included former Principals Dr. Jack Conroy and Jeannine Clark, several members of the PMHS Class of 1956, who were celebrating its reunion, and many retired teachers and alumni.
“From my perspective, the Pelham Memorial High School building is incredible on it’s own,” said Winston. “But what truly makes it special is not the hundred-year-old halls, but all of the amazing students that have walked through those halls over the past hundred years.”
Mr. Berkowitz added, “From its inception, Pelham Memorial High School has been infused with what the class of 1939 called, ‘the high ideals of scholarship and service. Indeed, right now, in the year 2021, Pelham Memorial High School serves over 920 students with a robust academic and co-curricular program and teachers, faculty and students who are regularly recognized for Inspiring a Standard of Excellence through their scholastic, artistic, technological, literary, mathematical and athletic achievements.”
When the school opened in 1921, the word “Memorial” was included in the high school’s name to honor those whose lives were lost in World War I. The school’s credo “Honor Here The Ideals for Which They Fought” is ingrained in the school’s auditorium. In recognition of this spirit, members of American Legion Pelham Post 50 recited the Memorial Roll, a list of those from Pelham who died in combat in World War I, World War II, The Korean War, Vietnam and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Following the recitation, the Pelham Regional Pipe Band, featuring Dr. Tom Callahan, Director of Math & Science and Teacher Andy Scott performed.
“I hope that this Centennial is an opportunity for us to reflect on how we can honor all of the history we have inside these walls while also continuing to challenge ourselves to have the same kind of future vision that the builders of this campus showed -- when starting construction in 1919 after a World War and in the midst of a devastating pandemic,” said Ms. Childs. “Education will always be largely about looking forward and this building --and its history -- can be a great reminder of our responsibility to move ahead and make continued progress for our town, our schools, and all of our students.”
The ceremony concluded with the jazz band playing the hit 1920 song “Margie” and attendees joining the chorus and band for a rendition of the school song “Pelican Parade.” Guests then had the opportunity to view posters around the perimeter of the field depicting highlights of PMHS through the decades as well as artifacts from the school. Student volunteers then led tours of the building, focusing on key pieces of history and architecture. Stops included the Main Entrance, PMHS Alumni Hall, the Library, including two Works Progress Administration commissioned pieces of art, and the Auditorium. The tours also included a performance by the members of the PMHS Chamber Chorus performing in the style of a barbershop quartet and the student acapela group the “AcaPelicans.”
“The facility itself is in the physical center of town, making it the heart of our community for generations. It is adorned with art and architecture that speak to the dignity, respect, and rich history of the learning institution that thrives within its regal stone walls,” said Dr. Champ. “What is also impressive and, in many ways, most enduring, are the relationships, traditions, memories, and pride that graduates take with them as they go out into the world beyond the sacred halls of the school.”
The District would like to thank Principal Berkowitz and Dr. Maria Thompson, Director of Humanities as well as the many teachers, parents, students and staff who served on the Centennial Planning Committee. Additionally, we would like to express our gratitude to the Pelham Public Schools facilities department and the many current and former custodians who have worked so diligently to ensure that PMHS was clean, functional and accessible for generations of Pelham students.