The closing of any school building is always bittersweet.
When Quartz Creek Holdings LLC announced its plans to transform Lebanon’s Northwest Elementary School, last used in 2018, into a new commerce and office space, many former pupils reminisced about time spent at 900 Maple Street.
All photographs by Will Trostel unless otherwise noted.
But replacing the old with the new has always been a part of Lebanon’s history. When Northwest opened in the fall season of 1976, it itself was replacing four other elementary schools of the city. Now, the recently built new Northwest Elementary School at 1315 Old Forge Road is taking over for the old one, which will go on to serve a new purpose in the community.
Before it does, though, LebTown managed to capture the school as it is in 2020 and has been for its approximately 42 years of use.
A new school needed
By the early 1970s, several Lebanon elementary schools were nearing their end. The Lincoln Elementary School, built around the turn of the century at 420 Lehman Street, was dealing with a temperamental cast-iron coal boiler, while Lindley Murray at 10th and Church Streets suffered from low enrollment. Garfield Elementary School, 4th and Mifflin Streets, and Harrison Elementary School, 7th and Maple Streets, were also on their way out.
Public hearings on the construction of a new elementary school began in late 1973. The Lebanon School District submitted plans for the school to the Lebanon County Redevelopment Authority the following July.
Northwest’s name was chosen from among 70 options by the Lebanon School Board. Among the most popular other options were Kennedy, Steitz, Fort Light, William Penn, and other names taken from local history.
Northwest was planned to accommodate about 1,100 students in grades first through sixth. Ray Associates, headed by architect John Ray of Lebanon, was hired to design the school. The open-classroom design, which utilized moveable walls, was meant to offer more flexibility for class organizers.
In addition to the classroom space, the school featured a seminar room, a health suite, a district office, a large-group classroom, a 12,000-volume library and an attached media production area, and a combined cafeteria and gymnasium space in the basement. The gym included full boys and girls shower rooms, which was unusual for elementary schools at the time. Extra space excavated in the basement served as district storage.
An open court in the center of the school allowed light to reach into the basement and fresh air to ventilate the classrooms.
Northwest was publicly dedicated on Halloween of that year, though it had been open since September 8. The school’s first principal, William Kell, was at the ceremony, along with Lebanon School Board president Frank O. Hill and district superintendent Paul C. Dunkleberger.
In all, the school cost $3.5 million to construct. Competitive contractor bidding on the school drove down the price to the point that the Lebanon Daily News reported that it was one of the least expensive schools per square foot built in the state at the time (with over 60,000 square feet of interior space).
Crossing the street in style
One of the most striking features of the school — the 10th Street pedestrian bridge — was not in use until 1978. The structure had been in the works for over a year prior to its opening and eventually ended up costing about $244,000.
The bridge was built to avoid kids being dropped off at Maple Street. This practice was forbidden after the bridge was completed for safety reasons.
Life at Northwest
At the time of its opening, Principal Kell stated that Northwest’s goal was “the individualization of instruction, not open space or open concept,” adding that the open classroom design was designed for flexibility and would not interfere with the discipline enforced at the school. Kell also defended the school’s full air conditioning system and carpeting against a letter decrying it as wasteful, stating that he saw it as “a humanistic treatment of students.”
Over the years, the school hosted the Northwest Carnival, food sales, an “Anything Goes” Night, the Northwest’s Student Talent Show, and other events, many of which were organized by a robust Parent-Teacher Association. The Northwest Handbell Choir of students, an idea developed by music teacher Pat Walter, performed at various locales during the holiday season and was a mainstay of the school for many years. Meanwhile, “Operation Employment” was a three-week program designed to help sixth grade students develop some of the basic skills needed for navigating the job market.
The modern era
Plans for a new Northwest were in the works for several years prior to 2018, when the old Northwest closed its doors. Its heating and cooling infrastructure was failing, and its location at a busy intersection was still a safety risk, as the Lebanon Daily News reported in 2015. In July of that year, students began attending the new facility on Old Forge Road.
The new Northwest Elementary School boasts almost 93,000 square feet and is the largest of the district’s five elementary schools, with about 700 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. The Lebanon Daily News reported in 2018 that the new school cost $25 million and was built on the former site of a Bethlehem Steel concentrator plant.
The old Northwest, though, is not going to be entirely gone. The structural steel and the open floor design of the school are both working in its favor for its new owners, who envision anywhere between one and ten tenants occupying the space. Though the “exterior skin” of Northwest will have to come off, the developers are looking forward to utilizing this interior flexibility.
It may not look like it used to, but some of Northwest’s charm will still be a part of the block for the foreseeable future.