The Lee Street School turns 90

This week, our students, staff, community and alumni are celebrating Homecoming Week and the 90th anniversary of our beloved Lee High School.  I’ve put together a short history that takes us back to 1923 and the beginning of Rebel lore.

The year was 1923 just five years removed from the First World War. Time magazine had published its first edition that year and President Warren G. Harding died in office upon contracting a sudden illness.

The Godfrey-Lee area, known back then as the Galewood-Urbandale-Burlingame (GUB) portion of Wyoming Township, was rapidly growing in large part due to (1) the highway along today’s Chicago Drive to Grandville and beyond that served as the western entrance to Grand Rapids; (2) the electric interurban trains that provided quick, relatively inexpensive transportation from Downtown Grand Rapids along Lee Street to Holland, and also through today’s Lee Athletic Field to Kalamazoo; and (3), the growth of manufacturing businesses in southwest Grand Rapids and northeast Wyoming. In particular, the old Kelvinator plant on Clyde Park, Pere Marquette railroad yard north of Chicago Drive, and a large number of furniture plants along Grandville and Godfrey Avenues spurred the development of the area and building of new homes.

The first schoolhouse in the GUB, a one-room structure built in 1857, had been located on a one square acre plot of land near the southeast corner of Nagel Avenue and Chicago Drive. It was known as the Green School but officially as Wyoming Township, District No. 7.  In 1894, a new schoolhouse was built on Godfrey Avenue across from Hudson Street. But with new homes came children – many children – and in no time the old Godfrey Avenue School, originally constructed as just two classrooms, quickly became overcrowded. Despite the fact district residents eventually approved adding eight more classrooms, the school was so full by the 1920’s that it wasn’t unusual to find classes meeting in the stairwells or the youngest kindergarten students sent home until the following year. The ninth and tenth grades had been added in 1909 contributing to crowded conditions.

The year of 1923 was a prosperous one for the Wyoming District as it brought the building of a new high school. This had been talked of for many years, as Godfrey Public School was overcrowded. Classes had been held in every available space. The public was finally forced to build. (Mona Clark, 1926)

By September 1921 it had again become essential to provide more classrooms for children living in the rapidly growing community. That December, the Board heard a report on the possibility of purchasing a portion of the old Nagel property bounded by the electric railroad to the south, Hawthorne Street (Havana today) to the west, Englewood (Engle today) to the north, and Martindale to the east. Comprising 5.8 acres it was available for approximately $1,000 per acre. The following March, the Board agreed to call a special meeting and ask the voters to approve borrowing money to build and equip a new school. They would need to sell bonds to borrow $85,000 for construction and furnishings, along with $6,000 for the site. On March 22,  with the polls open only between 8:00 and 10:00 pm, the issue was approved and construction bids were accepted that summer. The original name for the new school was also decided on at the suggestion of the Burlingame Improvement Association: Lee Street Junior High.

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Mona Clark, who had been a 9th grader at the time, described the day they moved to the Lee Street School:

Almost every one distinctly remembers the day marked for the dedication of our new high school. It was during the rainy season of the year, and the day which had been set for leaving our old building proved to be quite a disagreeable one. It rained all morning and until about two o’clock in the afternoon. Then when it stopped, which we had feared it wouldn’t do, Mr. Marsh had us get our books ready for leaving. We were all lined up in two columns with Mr. Marsh at the head. He made it possible for us to cross Godfrey Avenue, which is a very busy street. We came down Burton Street to Senica (sic), and from there to Lee Street. The roads were in bad condition and there was water everywhere. We arrived in the new building somewhat spattered with mud. The following weeks were marked by confusion, as classes were trying to assemble and to make themselves heard above the hammers and drills as the final touches were added to our splendid building. It was a period that showed great co-operation and the first promise of a loyal school spirit loomed up encouraged by occasional talks from our principal and superintendent.

NEW $125,000 LEE ST. SCHOOL DEDICATION IS SET FOR FRIDAY NIGHT

The Grand Rapids Herald, Sunday, December 9, 1923

Constructed to meet the needs of a population of 5,000, constituting the largest suburban development of Grand Rapids, the new Lee Street school, District No. 7, Wyoming township will be dedicated Friday night.

The building, a two-story, modern fireproof structure which cost approximately $125,000, serves the Galewood, Burlingame and Shopdale (sic) communities. The school census shows a gain in population of over 33 per cent in the last three years. The number of children of school age has increased from 900 to over 1,200 in that time.

The old building known as the Godfrey avenue public school has long since been outgrown. The new building will serve the kindergarten, first, second, third, junior and senior high grades.

During the last three years under the supervision of Supt. M.A. Becker, the enrollment has increased from 400 to 700 pupils and the number of teacher from 14 to 21.

On December 14, 1923, dedication exercises were held for the new Lee Street School. It had been occupied since early November. The original bid documents called for construction to be completed in time for that school year to start, but delays led to the later occupancy.

NEW SUBURBAN SCHOOL BUILDING

The Grand Rapids Herald, Sunday, December 16, 1923

While rather plain in design, the new building of the Lee Street school in District No. 7, Wyoming township built at a cost of $125,000 is the last word in school architecture for a structure of its size. The exterior color scheme as worked out in the material and trim is an attractive one.

The elementary grade rooms, lunchroom, kitchen and gymnasium with stage and balcony at opposite ends occupy the lower floor. The upper floor consists of six classrooms and a large session room capable of seating 175 pupils is occupied by the high school. A large room in the basement has been provided for domestic science and manual training.

A plot of six acres was obtained for the new building and a movement on foot to purchase two acres of adjoining, providing a whole block for playground and school purposes. On this plot an athletic field is being prepared in a bowl-shaped depression in such a manner as to provide a stadium like effect about the football and baseball field.

H.H. Turner and associate, Victory E. Theabaud, were the architects.

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On December 14, 1923, dedication exercises were held at 8:00 p.m. for the new Lee Street School. Superintendent M.A. Becker presided over the event with Mrs. Llewellyn Weaver, President of the Parent-Teachers Association, in charge of the reception committee. Mrs. Glenn R. Thayer chaired the social committee.

Following a reception and inspection of the new school, a program was held in the new auditorium. The Lee High School orchestra, no doubt very small owing to the fact that the high school only went through the 10th grade at the time, played an overture title Arcadia and the Siren march. This was followed by an invocation by Rev. Garret Menning, Pastor of the Eighth Reformed Church on Burton Street, and a welcome address by Henry J. Beld, school board president.

The high school glee club performed “Singing in the Rain” by Jerome and “Heather Rose” by Heinrich Werner. Members of the Mrs. Byron R. Pierce, Tent No. 17, Daughters of Union Veterans, presented flags for the new school. The high school orchestra performed two additional numbers: “America” and “Michigan, My Michigan.”

Mr. A.M.Freeland, county commissioner of schools, gave an address, followed by a solo sung by Margarett Roszell titled “Whispering Hope” by Alice Hawthorne. Mrs. Mable Winters Willsen gave a dramatic reading and the Grace Reformed Church orchestra then provided appropriate music. Rev. C. H. Spaan, pastor of the church, also addressed the audience.

Mrs. Orlow Tillyer sang “Take Joy Home” by Karolyn Basset and then Rev. Herbert McConnell, pastor of Smith Congregational Church, gave the benediction. This was followed by music performed by the high school orchestra at the ceremony’s closing.

Rosters of the school board and faculty at the time of the dedication:

School Board

Henry J. Beld, President; Jacob Kroodsma, Secretary; Roy C. Coolidge, Treasurer; John Hovingh, Trustee; James Welden, Trustee

Faculty

Mr. M.A. Becker, Superintendent

Godfrey Avenue Grade School: Carolyn Sladen, Principal;  Mrs. Margaret VanBuren, Kindergarten; Miss Agnes Noel, First Grade; Miss Myrtle Chamberlain, Second Grade; Miss Pauline Spanenberg, Third Grade; Miss Jennie Hettle, Fourth Grade; Mrs. Bessie Francis, Fifth Grade; Miss Rose Everett, Sixth Grade; Miss Bessie De Vries, Seventh Grade

Lee Street Grade School: Miss Joy Hallack, Kindergarten; Mrs. Frieda Gurd, First Grade; Miss Anna Heetderks, Second Grade; Miss Harriet Lowell, Third Grade

High School:  Mr. F. W. Marsh, Principal; Miss Ruth Sherman, English; Mrs. Florence Utter, History; Mr. Ernest Vroman, Commercial; Mrs. Orlow Tillyer, Music; Miss Mona Leach, Physical Training

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Within a very short time after the new “junior high” opened, the combined Godfrey and Lee PTA passed a resolution calling for grades eleven and twelve to be added and the school soon became known as Lee High School. During the spring of 1925, the first graduating class of four girls and one boy were awarded high school diplomas.

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About David Britten

Retired U.S. Army Officer, former elementary, middle and high school principal, currently serving as a public school superintendent.
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