Old Science High School in Newark demolished, leaving a trail of memories

  By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on February 17, 2017

The old Science High School in Newark has been demolished on Rector Street. Alumni have returned to get a brick as a souvenir. The site will be transformed into a 23-story, 169-unit apartment building that is backed by NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O'Neal and Boraie Development of New Brunswick.

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The elevator at the old Science High School in Newark didn't work most of the time. Seats in the auditorium were broken. Ceiling plaster fell on students during class, and when it rained outside, it rained inside.

Despite the ramshackle conditions dedicated teachers and motivated students were not deterred. They built a reputation as the tough-minded, scrappy little school on Rector Street that did more with less.

"It was a hot mess, but we loved it,'' said Altericke Brinkley, a 1982 graduate and Newark resident.

Teachers knew their students names, even if a kid wasn't in their class.  It was a serious place of learning, a top-flight city school, where everyone felt safe, where everyone cared.

There were enough good times to fill a scrapbook for its alumni, but they'll settle for having visited 40 Rector Street one last time.

During the past two weeks they came to see their alma mater being demolished to make way for new development.

Some alumni took pictures. Many snagged a brick. Others did both, as the landmark building that was once the Ballantine Brewery Malt House came down piece by piece.

Margaret Adjoga-Otu, a former student who is now the school's librarian, hasn't made the trip yet but couldn't believe it when she heard the news that the building was being torn down.

"A co-worker showed me a picture. It took my breath away,'' she said.

Coming to the site will be a 23-story, 169-unit apartment building, among the city's first residential high-rise since 1962, the result of a partnership between NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O'Neal and Boraie Development, of New Brunswick.

By the end of the month, all the debris should be gone and another chapter of Newark's history will be just that - history.

This includes the school's distinctive art deco entranceway, which appears to have been destroyed despite an agreement with the developer that it would be saved. Only some of the decorative tiles surrounding the entrance, which were removed before demolition, remain intact.

"It's a shame,'' said Matthew Gosser, vice president of the Newark Landmark & Preservation Committee. "It was not supposed to be touched in the demolition.''

Phillip Scott, the city's director of engineering, said the facade was supposed to be preserved based on approvals from the Newark Landmarks & Historic Preservation Commission. But bricks started falling from the building in November, and his department gave the developer permission to move up the demolition date, which had been scheduled for some time in the spring.

"As they tried to preserve the building, the building was basically falling apart," Scott said.

But Scott also said he's not aware if the facade or entranceway was saved, but the art deco terra cotta tiles featuring symbols of education were removed and will be incorporated into the design of the new building.  

The building, which was constructed around 1860 as a brewery malt house, became home to many important institutions, including Dana College in 1933, created when the New Jersey Law School and Seth Boyden School of Business merged.

It later became the University of Newark in 1935. Then, Rutgers University took it over 10 years later, to use as a chemistry lab. In 1963, Essex County College began leasing the building until 1976, when The Newark Board of Education took over and converted the building to house Science High School.

The school stayed for 30 years, enduring less-than-stellar conditions. In June 2006, students marched through city streets because of delays in the construction of their new Science Park High School, which eventually opened in the fall of that year.

In spite of everything, students remained committed to their education in the old building. Gym classes were held around the corner on Broad Street at the YMCA, but students never skipped out afterward

"They could go home if they wanted to,'' said Branden Rippey, a history teacher for 19 years.  "That's the testament to how good our kids were.''

They were 600 strong. But a missing student would have been easily noticed because everyone knew each other.

It's still that way among alumni. When news spread that the building was being razed, the Science High School alumni Facebook page lit up with posts.

"Get a brick, take a pick.''

There was a line of cars one day. Brinkley, a management analyst at the Veteran Affairs Health Care System in East Orange, sent her son to get three.

Her niece, brother and cousin are graduates.

'"It was a family thing,'' Brinkley said.

Jonathan Alston, who was Adjoga-Out's English teacher, says he plans to get a souvenir brick, but that's as sentimental as it gets for him. He remembers the mold, asbestos removal and flooded locker rooms in the basement.

"I'm not going to glorify giving kids unsafe resources,''  Alston said.

Instead, he holds onto the education that took place there. Teachers, he said, were socially conscious. Literature was presented with flair. The debate team that he now coaches, became nationally known.

"We were a small school that was more like a club of people who really cared,'' Alston said.

For Luis Soto, 45, of Greenbrook, Science High was an escape from the poverty and crime in his Newark neighborhood.

"It (school) was a sanctuary. It was a safe zone,'' said Soto, a 1989 graduate, who is a major with the New Jersey Department of Corrections.

But now it's gone.

Kiyan Williams, who was part of the last class before the school closed, didn't' take a brick on his visit.

"It was devastating to see a place being demolished that was so central to who I am as a person,'' said Williams, 25, an artist who lives in Oakland, Calif.

As he stood there, watching machinery chip away at the building, Williams said it was moment for him to reflect and see a bigger picture.

Science High is part of a "ripple effect," that Newark is changing.

Look for construction to begin in the spring.

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