By Paul McDonnell AIA
Buffalonians are very familiar with its art deco masterpieces; City Hall and Central Terminal, but many take for granted the equally impressive Kensington High School. Designed in the 1930’s during the Great Depression, Kensington was funded by the Federal Emergency Administration (FERA). FERA was one of President Roosevelt’s first New Deal programs, whose main goal was to ease unemployment by creating new jobs for tradesmen, artisans and architects in local and state government.
Despite the country’s dire financial situation during the Great Depression, Buffalo’s population between 1920 and 1940 expanded by almost 70,000 residents to 575,000 with over 80,000 students in the public schools. Much of this growth was occurring in the northern section of Buffalo, especially in the Kensington Bailey neighborhood. A new high school was needed and soon land on Suffolk Avenue was acquired and by 1935 the new Kensington High School was under construction.
Daniel McNeil, architect for the Buffalo Public School system chose to design this new school in the then popular art deco style. Art deco had originated in Europe in the 1920’s and made its way across the Atlantic where it was embraced by Americans who found its muscularity, linear symmetry and modernity appropriate for the new buildings in its booming cities. The style remained popular through the depression especially for civic buildings where its style invoked strength and optimism at a time when the public needed reassurance from the government that all was not lost.
Kensington incorporated many of the details commonly associated with art deco, from its symmetrical main elevation, strong verticality and geometric ornamentation. The verticality is accentuated with a five story central tower capped by a copper hipped roof and the recessed windows and metal spandrel panels. The limestone and buff brick exterior is adorned with stylized bison, owls, eagles, floral patterns and numerous geometric images. When opened, the school was a state-of-the-art facility for 2000 students with a large gymnasium, cafeteria, spectacular 3 story tall art deco detailed auditorium, well equipped science labs and ample well equipped classrooms.
Kensington would develop a proud legacy all the way through the 1980’s. It would begin a decline in the 1990’s with changing demographics, a lack of programmatic and physical investment and poor academic performance. In 2003 Kensington High School was closed. After the last students vacated the building, the district would use it as a central food service preparation facility, administrative offices and storage. In 2005 Hutch Tech would relocate there and use it as a temporary home while their building was being reconstructed.
At this same time, the Frederick Law Olmsted program was looking to consolidate some of its grade levels and expand the school. Olmsted had developed into one of the most successful programs in Buffalo. There was a consistent waiting list to attend the school and the neighborhood served by Olmsted had become a neighborhood of choice for Buffalonians. Because of the strong interest in expanding the program through the twelfth grade a large school was needed. Serendipitously Kensington High School was available.
In 2009 HHL Architects was selected to begin design work on Kensington High School to accommodate a grades 5-12 program as part of the Joint School Reconstruction Program (JSCB). Construction would begin a year later. The architect’s first task was to insure that issues with the building exterior were addressed. The school required a great deal of masonry re-pointing and brick replacement and the original 80 year old wood windows needed replacement. Although it is preferable to repair historic windows, the windows at Kensington had suffered from years of neglect and were deemed to be beyond repair.
The district has considered the windows in all of its historic buildings to be character defining elements and when original windows could not be saved accurate reproductions would be created. Kensington was no exception. The old sash was removed, the frames were scraped, sanded smooth, painted and new bronze weather stripping was installed. New sash were custom fabricated by Infinity Windows of Buffalo using Spanish cedar, a sustainable, rot resistant species of wood. The windows have true divided lights, with 3 over 3 insulated glass units matching the originals perfectly yet meeting all contemporary energy performance standards. With the addition of the insulated glass, the new sashes were significantly heavier than the originals and the balancers could not accommodate the extra weight. To remedy this Infinity developed a system in which the widows balance themselves. As the bottom sash is raised, the upper lowers in unison and although each one ways in excess of 80 lbs, they can be operated with one hand.
Kensington still had the original science labs installed in 1937 that were in dire need of replacement. New labs with proper preparation rooms, fume hoods and chemical storage were installed. The old wood cabinets, although obsolete for science labs were dismantled, refinished and installed throughout the building for use as display cabinets.
Every classroom received new lighting, flooring, ceilings and paint. Interactive white boards and the infrastructure to support six computers was installed.
New computer rooms, a home and careers room, a technology center, music rooms, art rooms and administrative suites were constructed. The gymnasium, pool and locker rooms were also refurbished.
New construction included a new music room and entrance located in the rear of Kensington. Designed to house choral music, the “red cube” also serves as the “venue” entrance for the auditorium conveniently located near the school parking lot.
The most stunning space at Kensington and is the art deco auditorium. Almost three stories high, the 2000 seat auditorium was freshly painted with colors that highlight the deco detailing. All of the original light fixtures were re-lamped and refurbished, the wood seating restored and a new stage curtain was installed. In order to support virtually any event Olmsted may host, a new sophisticated theatrical lighting and sound system was included as part of the auditorium restoration.
Finally, an “Olmstedian” landscape of rolling hills, trellises and trees was constructed in the rear of the school. The space serves as an outdoor classroom and offers recreational opportunities for the students.
Considering that Kensington High School was virtually abandoned as a school less than ten years ago, the transformation has been remarkable. Alumni that were so concerned with the disposition of the building are now collaborating with the Olmsted staff and students to ensure that the history of Kensington High School is not forgotten and the future of the new Frederick Law Olmsted School at Kensington is bright and successful.
My grandfather, Thomas J. McDonnell was the first principal of Kensington High School. Tom was a Buffalo native, educated at Canisius College, the State Normal School and Columbia University. He began his teaching career at the newly opened South Park High School in 1915. There he met a fellow teacher, Estelle Weber, who would become his wife. In 1932 Tom was named Assistant Principal at Grover Cleveland High School and then hand picked by the Superintendent of Schools to serve as Kensington High School’s first Principal in 1937. His tenure would take the school through WW II.
A picture shows him standing next to a Curtis aircraft manufactured in Buffalo named “Spirit of Kensington” to honor the school for an incredibly successful scrap metal drive in support of the war in 1943. My father, Paul would graduate from Kensington in 1946. One year later Tom died suddenly at the age of 55. The McDonnell family produced many Buffalo school employees; his brother Arthur, principal at School 33, two sons, Paul and Robert a granddaughter, Susan, and a grandson…me…who would have the privilege of managing the reconstruction of the school he so honorably served.
Paul McDonnell AIA is Director of Facilities, Planning and Construction for the Buffalo Public Schools, President of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture and Culture, Chair of the Buffalo Preservation Board and Board Member of the Buffalo and WNY Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.