KENMORE — Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of articles exploring significant architecture in the Tonawandas and Kenmore. Please contact us if there are any buildings you want to know more about by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Former students of Mount St. Mary Academy tend to have a fierce attachment to their alma mater. Many employees at the all-girls Catholic school are graduates and proudly identify themselves with two numbers after their name. Coordinator of Alumnae and Public Relations Alex Fussell signs her emails with “ ’96,” the year she graduated.
In a recent tour of the school, Fussell and Historic Preservation Project Assistant with Clinton Brown Company and 2002 MSM graduate Meagan Baco often discussed just how many of their family members were graduates and joked that they calculate which class new female babies will graduate with.
Families with many graduates are often referred to as dynasties and Baco’s own, the Jakiel-McMahon Dynasty, was recently acknowledged as the school’s largest.
“It was the family connection that brought me to the Mount, my personal experiences as a student that made it excellent and now my appreciation for those years that keeps me dedicated to and active in the academy’s advancement,” Baco said.
If the school is one big family, then its the building that serves as their home, the thing that brings them together and stands as a symbol of their personal and familial history.
The academy was founded by the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, an order in Belgium whose sole mission is the education of young girls, according to “The Catholic Encyclopedia.” The sisters, who came to the United States in 1863, originally intended to open a mission in the midwest because they wanted to convert Native Americans, Fussell said.
The Civil War hindered that plan and sisters ended up opening the order’s first American house in Lockport under guidance from Bishop Timon. The sisters eventually started looking for property in Western New York to open a mother house.
“Mother Veronica had a vision, she saw Kenmore, which at the time had nothing ... it was basically just orchards and farmland at the time,” Fussell said. “She found this property that had a little hill and she envisioned a school on the hill ... Mount St. Mary’s.”
The construction of the building began in 1923 and it was a slow process — the sisters moved into the building before it was even completed.
“They used to say that Mother Veronica — when she was building the old part of the school — she’d open up the mail and say ‘here’s another check, get another brick,’ ” Fussel laughed.
World wars and all-girl Catholic schools don’t seem to have much in common upon first glance, but the building and expansion of Mount St. Mary Academy closely follows a similar timeline to the two great wars.
The school was officially opened in 1927, coinciding with a baby boom that occurred after World War I.
“By then Kenmore was established as a community, as a suburb. I think about life in 1927, houses were being built all around Kenmore,” said Ed Adamczyk, village historian. “It turned into one of those schools on the hill ... a nice formal looking school for area Catholic girls. It added a lot of stature to the Kenmore-Tonawanda area. It was a signal that there was going to be growth.”
But the school was only partially completed in 1927. Photographs of the building prior to the 1950s show it was left lop-sided with the intention of adding another wing as the school body grew. That additional wing was added in 1953 when the babies born after World War II reached school age.
Fussell explained that yet again the sisters were forced to make use of a portion of the school while still under construction. Members of the class of 1954 say they remember sitting in class watching as rats that were stirred up by the construction scurried past the room. But at that point, they were desperate for the space.
“The school’s history fits in with a larger history of education with two big eras of school building in the 20s and 50s,” said Jennifer Walkowski, architectural historian with Clinton Brown Company. “After the 20s ... there was that prosperity and families are growing, they need a place to educate children so it was a big era of school construction and school expansions.”
The school’s population peaked in 1964 when 120 girls graduated. After that there was a decline and these days, the class sizes sit at about 70 to 80 students. Throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, the school sold off surrounding parcels of land and in 1994 the convent, which was housed in the left wing of the building, officially closed. In 2005, that wing of the building reopened as a senior center for former nuns.
Mount St. Mary Academy, designed by Mortimer James Murphy Sr., is what Walkowski describes as collegiate gothic.
“If you think about the old colleges like Harvard and Yale ... you see this sort of gothic revival used for educational buildings. In the 1920s it’s a term that’s used for a lot of schools built at the time,” she said.
Gothic revival was particularly popular in school buildings during this time as a way to project a long-standing tradition of education and respectability.
Some hallmarks of this style that are exhibited by MSM academy are the recessed entrance framed by an archway; the buttresses, or exterior supports; and the decorative statue above the entrance, in this case, of St. Mary.
The timeline of the school’s expansion can literally be seen on its facade — a difference in the color of brick clearly shows where 1927 ends and 1953 begins.
“I appreciate the subtle change in brick color differentiating the original 1920s school building with the later 1950s addition,” Baco said. “The addition completed the architect’s original symmetrical design and it illustrates the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur’s dedication to advancing and improving the school.”
The school also contains a chapel that, while too small to contain the entire student body, is regularly used for smaller masses and events. The chapel mimics the gothic revival of the exterior, complete with stain-glass windows and ribbed vaulting on the ceiling, so-called because it literally looks like a skeleton’s ribs, Walkowski explained.
“It’s really nicely preserved, it’s intact,” Walkowski said. “You can see that they’ve cherished it and not made any alterations to it. It’s become almost something that’s passed down from generation to generation.”
Walkowski pointed out that even the concrete blocks used along the ceiling of the hallway outside the chapel were constructed to look like a gothic cathedral.
“You’ve got a typical concrete block unit used to replicate stone, which you would’ve seen in gothic cathedrals and then it’s even molded into tutor arches (above the entryways) which is an unusual detail for a concrete building that you’d see in the 1920s ... so it’s really done to emulate a stone cathedral,” she said.
Jumping from a medieval style to something a little more contemporary, the school added a state-of-the-art auditorium modeled after Buffalo’s renowned Kleinhan’s Music Hall. And like Kleinhan’s, the 1,000-seat “aud” as the Mounties like to call it, is symphonically correct.
“It’s an excellent example of mid-century design and is highly intact right down to the pressed metal door details and period hardware,” Walkowski said of the auditorium.
The school was built over the course of decades, each part with its distinctive style, yet seemingly blending into a “harmonious whole,” Walkowski said.
“What is remarkable about the architecture of Mount St. Mary Academy is that each section, built at different times, complements the entire building while remaining architecturally distinctive to its period of construction. The original collegiate gothic building is an excellent example of many of the schools and colleges being constructed in the 1920s, and the school even retains original dark, wood-framed chalkboards and cabinets. Yet the auditorium addition complements the color and scale of the building, not detracting from the magnificence of the ‘school on the hill,’ while bringing the popular 1950s curved streamline moderne design to the building,” she said.
And like any home that’s had its additions to accommodate a growing family over the years — a covered garage here, an extra screened-in porch there — some people just have a hard time giving up what they’ve worked to help create.
“It’s such a close environment and so warm ... we always felt like it was a joyous event to come in here. It really is a source of pride,” Fussel said of the chapel.
But it was clear during the tour that she and Baco felt that same sense of pride throughout, even when talking about the cafeteria or an old dance classroom.
Contact features editor Danielle Haynes at 693-1000, ext. 4116.