Pupils of School No. 59
have a 'final' hoorah
Louisa May Alcott closed 50 years ago
The hallways and classrooms emptied of children half a century ago, but memories of Baltimore's Louisa May Alcott School No. 59 were alive and mostly well on Sunday as about 100 of its pupils gathered at a suburban synagogue for what was billed as their "second final reunion."
A few of them hobbled from the infirmities of aging -- and the oldest among them, Sylvia Cohn, at 98, had more difficulty with short-term memory than in recalling the lower Park Heights neighborhood of her childhood. She told of picking cherries from a tree behind the old Pratt Library branch half a block from the school on Keyworth Avenue.
Their school -- our school -- was shut down in 1972, viewed by the city as substandard, lacking a cafeteria and air-conditioning, but remains a landmark. Used for a time for regional offices and as a warehouse, then vacant for a decade, the oversize three-story brick and stucco building dating to 1910 nonetheless was added to the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of its architecture.
And for the last two decades, the restored building -- now known as Alcott Place -- has been lovingly maintained as subsidized housing for elderly residents. The principal's office is gone, replaced by an elevator shaft, and each classroom was turned into an efficiency apartment. A fourth level was added in a huge former attic space and turned into an activity and computer center with its own elevator from the third floor.
The school had a core group of teachers who lasted there long enough to have instructed multiple generations of the same families.
Six years ago, days after his 94th birthday, I had the pleasure of taking the well-known Baltimore writer and storyteller Gilbert Sandler on a tour of our old neighborhood, and School 59, which we had attended 24 years apart. We both had "Miss Esther" Freilachoff in first grade. And we were given a tour of the building by a gentleman who lived there -- and showed us his apartment, in what had been my sixth-grade classroom.
In hallway on 2019 visit
I attended the school from 1951 to June 1957, at the enrollment start of the postwar "baby boomer" era, from a neighborhood that was entirely white and largely Jewish. The reunion had demographics to match.
The first black pupil at Louisa May Alcott arrived in September of 1957, three years after the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision ostensibly ending racial segregation of public schools. That year was also the beginning of a decade of rapid racial change that swept northwesterly along the Park Heights Avenue-Reisterstown Road corridor, with "blockbusting" tactics by real estate speculators scaring white homeowners to sell at distress prices and fueling much of the "white flight" toward the suburbs of Pikesville, Randallstown and Owings Mills.
Interestingly, the reunion program book listed relatively recent housing sale prices, street by street, in some cases noting names of the School 59 children who had formerly lived in them -- a range from around $22,000 to a few exceeding $300,000. Conditions along neighborhood streets range from third-worldly horror to decent and improving.
On Towanda Avenue, row house ruin a few blocks from School 59.
My own street of 1940s-vintage row homes has held up well. (Taking a recent visitor on a tour of Baltimore, we encountered a woman unloading groceries outside her row house across Royce Avenue from the one where I had been raised. She told us she had moved from D.C. in buying it last year, that the former owner had died and it had been beautifully restored for sale. According to our program book, the price was $202,000.)
The first School 59 reunion was held in 1993, attended by more than 800 former students -- a sell-out event from which more than 200 others were turned away because of space limitations at the catering hall. Sunday's gathering was the seventh -- and billed as the "second final reunion."
Attendance at the previous gathering in 2017 had dropped to 151, according to Bob Cohen, a reunion committee member and master of ceremonies.
Only a few of those attending on Sunday live in the old neighborhood's 21215 Zip Code -- known postally as "Zone 15" back in the day. Most now have suburban addresses. But some came from long distances -- as far away as California, Arizona, Colorado, Texas and, of course, Florida.
Bob wrote in the program book that this final reunion was planned by "new blood" -- a committee of those "younger than 80." And most likely, it was the final final.