Local artists to bring old Bel Air Academy to life once more

The Historical Society of Harford County is planning a special event on Wednesday, Aug. 13, when visitors to the society's headquarters in Bel Air will be given a rare glimpse of the old Bel Air High School on Gordon Street, as seen through the eyes and the paintings and sketches of several local en plein air artists.

The oldest portion of the Gordon Street school building, originally known as the Bel Air Academy and Graded School, dates to around 1880 and still sparks nostalgic feelings from former students, Carol Deibel, a volunteer with the historical society and a former Town of Bel Air planning director.

According to "Bel Air: An Architectural and Cultural History, 1782-1945" by Marilynn L. Larew, which was edited by Deibel and Elizabeth Carven, the School Commissioners for Harford County, forerunner of the current school board, leased a lot on Gordon Street in 1880 to build a new school, the first brick schoolhouse in Harford County.

The original building is described in Larew's book as "a Victorian gable-roofed, T-shaped structure, two stories tall, with round windows occupying the gables on each end. In those days, when school ended in the 11th grade, three grades were housed in the original Bel Air Academy Building on Pennsylvania Avenue and the remaining eight in the new school. According to the book, the "front" of the school faced Gordon Street.

As enrollment grew, the building was doubled in size, according to the Larew book, by constructing a mirror image on the "back" of the original. "In 1907," Larew writes, "the new school building [the addition] became the Bel Air High School."

"By 1910, the high school had a commercial course, manual training and agricultural courses along with the college preparatory course, which required another addition to the building, housing by then all 12 grades," according to the book. That addition was built on the side of the building closest to the existing Bel Air Elementary School and can be plainly seen as an add-on.

The Gordon Street building served as both a high school and as an elementary school over the years.

George Harrison, who attended classes in the academy building, has less than fond memories of it.

"I attended all my elementary years from 1st to 6th grade in the Bel Air Academy building, and all of us considered it a death trap," he wrote in an email Friday. "We used to laugh when each spring they applied oil to the wood floors to keep the dust down, fully expecting someone would light a match and burn the place down. I'm still amazed it is still standing." 

In the late 1920s, another brick school was built just to the east and would serve as a high school until 1950, when a new high school opened on Kenmore Avenue, near the site of the current High School completed in 2009. The second Gordon Street school then served as Bel Air Elementary School until the current elementary school was built on the adjacent athletic fields off of Lee Street.

Harrison noted that "no one seems to remember there was another school building on the [Gordon Street] property.

Once the students left, the old school became the headquarters for Harford County Public Schools from 1951 until 2006, when the school system moved into its current headquarters on South Hickory Avenue.

Since then, the building has been vacant and boarded up. Both Harford County, which owns the building, and the Town of Bel Air have discussed a number of proposals for restoration and re-use of the building; however, nothing has materialized. Earlier this year, the county government said it planned to put the building up for auction, but has not yet done so.

"For some, the memories are of going to a 'real public school,' one of the first in Harford County, and for others, it's part of that ongoing tradition feeling that kids get from knowing 'where their brothers and sisters used to go,'" Deibel said in a recent email.

The building's outward appearance still reflects that "old school ambience," she said, which will be embodied in paintings and sketches rendered by painters Joan Preston, Connie Beims, Janet Scarborough, Eleanor Mulholland, Virginia Streamer, Gwyn Howard, Beverly Browning, Loretta Di Loretto and Stephen Howard.

The group was charged by "sentimental graduate" and artist John Sauers to come up with interpretations of the building, something more than merely representational, Deibel explained.

The drawings and paintings will be on display and available for sale. There also will be displays of memorabilia from the old school, including diplomas, pins, photos and athletic ribbons.

Organizers of the event are particularly hopeful of connecting with anyone who attended the school, Deibel said.

Admission to Good 'Ole School Days, which begins at 6 p.m., is free. Light refreshments will be served. Donations to the Historical Society's building campaign are welcome. The society's headquarters is at 143 N. Main St. in the old Bel Air Post Office.

"This is a wonderful opportunity to revisit an earlier time in Harford and meet with some of the graduates from this very special place," Deibel said.

RSVP to the Historical Society, 410-838-7691, or by completing the reservation form on the back of the society's newsletter. 

Other Historical Society of Harford County upcoming events include:

• Saturday, Aug. 23 - Fourth Saturday open house at the society headquarters, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

• Saturday, Sept. 6, - What's in Your Attic: Antique Appraisal Fair, Bel Air Reckord Armory, 37 N. Main St., Bel Air. More than 20 appraisers will assess your treasures. Fee $10 each, with a maximum of three items, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

• Sunday, Sept. 7 - Grandparents Day: A Walk on the Wild Side at the Hays House Museum, 324 Kenmore Ave., Bel Air, 1 to 4 p.m.; $5 adults, $3 seniors and students, children under 4 free.

• Thursday, Sept. 25 - Historical Society's 2014 annual dinner at the Maryland Golf and Country Clubs in Bel Air, featuring guest speaker, Williamsburg interpreter Mark Schneider, as the Marquis de Lafayette, 6:30 p.m. Tickets $35.

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