Walking up the short flight of stairs to the first floor, gazing again at the impressive staircase and the tall marble columns that flank the front hall, I felt lucky to have gone to school there. The old part of the formidable two-story neoclassical-style school was built in 1903 and faces Jefferson Avenue. A large wing in the same style and built with the same beautiful thin red Roman brick was added to the back of the school in 1933.The place was still impressive, and the developers will keep some of that look by retaining the grand double staircase.
I ran into my brother’s old neighbor from Lincoln Avenue. He was sanding some plaster, and he stopped and took a dust mask off his face and we talked. He remembered me, and I asked his if he’d gone to school there. He said he had, but only for fourth and fifth grade. He led me up to the model two-bedroom unit on the second floor, where Grant School Associates partner Casey Steiner was waiting for me.
Steiner showed me around the model unit and took me out through French doors onto the stylish wrought iron balcony that had been attached to the building. It was a clear day, and we had a good view all the way to Downtown.
“Do you remember staring out those windows, wishing you’d rather be anyplace else but here?” Steiner said, gesturing towards the windows as we walked back inside. I said I did.
I wasn’t entirely sure how to feel. Things were so different at the old school, and the changes were happening so fast that it felt almost surreal to me.
I followed Steiner around the building, which felt as familiar as tracing the back of my right hand with my left hand. As he led me through my old school, he pointed out the changes that had been made to the place. He had seen a gem in the old school. Its walls are three feet thick on the first floor and two feet thick on the second floor, he noted. Large windows flood nearly every room with light, and wood floors and old school woodwork adorn almost every room.
Those rooms had once been filled with students, many from large families of four, five, six or more children. Times had changed, and people no longer have as many kids as they used to. That fact, coupled with the depopulation of Pittsburgh that went along with the downscaling of the American steel industry, had made it so the premium put on the large old houses that line Bellevue’s streets is not what it once was. For someone who wants a lot of house for a reasonable price, Bellevue was, and still is, a good bet.
The declining number of kids in Bellevue meant they didn’t need two elementary schools, and Grant School was closed more than twenty years ago. Grant’s sister elementary school in Bellevue, Jackson School, had been closed and converted to residential use when I was a kid. Now here I am at forty, feeling like a kid coloring a picture of my past.
Before Jackson closed, as a boy I compared Jackson’s Strawberry Festival with ours over at Grant. Both of the schools held fundraisers in which an array of strawberry desserts and other foods were sold to raise money for the PTA. For the Strawberry Festival, the gym in Grant School would be edged on all sides with folding tables that drooped under the weight of the desserts. Everybody was happy, eating and talking as the sunlight streamed through the huge windows.
That old gym was also used for Saturday afternoon movies when I was young. They would show free movies on the wall of the gym on Saturday afternoons, and beforehand we kids would go across Jefferson Avenue to Jamison’s Market, which was a mom-and-pop store that was no bigger than a two-car garage. We’d buy penny candy, red licorice fish and cherry smoke bombs and snakes, both of which were incendiaries that were regularly sold into our eager little hands. We’d munch on candy as we watched the movies, and afterward we’d light off our stink bombs and snakes in the schoolyard.
As I worked on the lofts story after interviewing Steiner, one of the people I interviewed reminded me of a long-standing tradition that Grant School had.
“Remember when at Christmastime, they’d give everybody a candy-cane and line us up on the steps and have us sing Christmas carols?” Bellevue mayor George Doscher reminded me.
“Yeah,” I said, as he recounted the experience.
It occurred to me that by fifth grade we boys all thought the tradition was corny. But it was a nice tradition. A tradition, come to think of it, that reflects the complete absence of Jewish and Muslim children in our school.
Recently, in a rush of nostalgia, I called up my old elementary school art teacher, Judy Meinert. She told me how great a time she'd had teaching at Grant. She remembered there being a beautiful old chandelier that hung on the ceiling of the main hall above the staircase. It was there when she first interviewed for the job at Grant. She got the job, started in 1967, and stayed until the place closed in 1981 and she moved to the new elementary school, in the old Bellevue High School on Lincoln Avenue.
I told Mrs. Meinert how some of the things she’d said about our artwork when I was a kid, I was reminded of later in life, while I was writing.
“Do you see this detail?” I remembered her saying to our class, pointing out the leaves I had drawn on a tree during a sketching exercise. “That’s what you want—details.”