A historic school that had served as the heart of the rural Baltimore County community of Sparks for 85 years was destroyed by fire yesterday, leaving behind charred stone walls and the childhood memories of many generations.
Sparks Elementary School, second-oldest in Baltimore County and the original home of the nation's first agricultural high school, made room for a church, a community association, troops of Brownies and Girl Scouts and neighborhood sports teams.
From its smoldering ruins, firefighters carried a tank of tropical fish kept by current pupils and a plaque honoring Sparks students who had served in World War I.
"It was like watching my house burn down," said Lorraine Cook, mother of three Sparks students and one graduate, who wept as she watched flames lick at the "1909" sign above the arched facade. "I stood there for an hour. What went through my head was, thank God this happened today and not tomorrow, when the children would have been here."
Janet Maltese, a second-grade teacher for nine years, gazed up at the empty window frames of her second-floor classroom as water from a firefighter's hose tumbled through where the roof had been. Nothing remained on the walls but a partly melted clock.
"It's devastating," she said, standing with her arm around her son, Chris, a fourth-grader. "It was a beautiful classroom, with two computers, lots of audiovisual equipment, the children's artwork, the children's journals. All gone."
"I was upset, thinking of all the fun times I had at that school," said John Hupfer, 11, a fifth-grader.
On Friday, he said, he had stood before the class with a photo-collage of fires and firefighters he'd done as a book report.
The poster burned along with his journal, his papers and school supplies, John said.
Just as shaken by the fire was a member of a much earlier class, Arthur "Ducky" Holmes, 95. In 1916, he was a member of the second class to graduate from Sparks Agricultural High School, having starred on its basketball, baseball and track teams. "I never thought I'd live longer than that old school," Mr. Holmes said. "In a way, I'm sad it happened that way."
School officials said Sparks Elementary's 302 students should stay home today, while plans are made to accommodate them elsewhere. Teachers should report to Hereford Middle School.
Fire in ceiling
The fire was discovered in the ceiling of a second-floor classroom by S. Allen Hoffman III, who has shared custodial duties at the school for many years with his father. Spotting smoke and flame as he opened the school at 7:50 a.m. for the Baptist congregation that holds Sunday services there, Mr. Hoffman dialed 911 and emptied a fire extinguisher, to little avail.
Firefighters arrived minutes later, calling a second alarm immediately and a third alarm at 8:07, as flames soared through the slate roof and more than 20 feet into the air. Though they began pumping water from tankers immediately, they had to run hoses to the Gunpowder Falls River to find adequate supplies, a common circumstance in fighting a rural fire.
At 8:47 a.m., firefighters were ordered out of the building as the roof, topped by a modest cupola, threatened to fall in. More than 120 firefighters and 30 pieces of equipment continued to fight the blaze. By 10:18 a.m., when the fire was declared under control, little more than files and typewriters from the principal's office could be salvaged.
$3 million loss
Damage was estimated at $3 million.
Fire investigators had not completed their work last night, but the cause did not appear to be arson, said Battalion Chief Mark Hubbard of the Baltimore County Fire Department. School officials said suspicions focused on an electrical motor in a ventilation unit.
The school, built in 1909 with additions in 1927 and 1936, was last renovated in 1971 and scheduled for complete modernization in 2001, said Faith Hermann, executive director of school facilities. Only Randallstown Elementary, built in 1908, is older, she said.
"I'm angry," said Ms. Cook, the mother of four, who lives a half-mile from the school. "We've been on the list for improvements for a long time."
The school's low electrical capacity prevented the use this year of a new computer lab, where computers had sat idle since school opened in September. Electricians arrived at the school Friday to begin work on upgrading the electrical service, said Principal Tom Ellis.
Space for the computer lab had been freed this year by the opening of Jacksonville Elementary School, which alleviated severe crowding at Sparks. About 150 of last year's enrollment ++ of 450 left Sparks, easing the crowding but also causing considerable trauma as friends were separated, Sparks parents said. Several parents said they hoped the school's students can now be relocated together.
The community of Sparks, which draws its name from a family that once ran the general store, grew up as a cluster of shops and a post office along the Northern Central Railroad, which ran along the Gunpowder downhill from the school. The NCR route now is a recreational trail.
Before the school opened as Sparks Agricultural High, students who could not take the train to Towson had no high school available, said Ruth B. Mascari of Monkton.
In 1909, "the people literally hauled the stone in themselves to build the school," said Ms. Mascari, chairwoman of the Baltimore County Landmarks Preservation Commission and a student of local history.
Some students arrived each morning aboard a yellow, horse-drawn school bus, but others, including Mr. Holmes, commuted by train from Monkton and other northern Baltimore County locations.
"Sometimes, if I had to stay late for practice or something, I'd have to walk the three miles back home along the railroad track," Mr. Holmes said. And sometimes on warm afternoons, he said, the students would miss the first train to take a dip in the Gunpowder.
Nicholas Price, 57, whose ancestors settled in Sparks after the Revolutionary War and who runs a grocery and liquor store on York Road, entered the school in 1943 and remembers collecting milkweed pods with his classmates for use in sailors' life jackets. His father graduated from the agricultural high school, but Mr. Price moved to Hereford High School when it opened in 1953.
'It's a landmark'
As Sparks' postmaster from 1960 to 1992, Mr. Price says he understands the crucial role of the school in the life of the area.
"I really hope they rebuild the school on that piece of property," he said. "It's a landmark."
Others were skeptical, noting the school's hillside location, frequently flooded athletic fields and small size.
But Ms. Mascari, who said the Landmarks Preservation Commission will monitor the decision-making on the school's future, said the building's stone shell should be reused in some form.
"People stopped me today at church and at the store to say, 'What will we do without the school?' " she said. "What's saved should be adaptively reused. It's the centerpiece of the community."
1909: Built from local stone as Sparks Agricultural High School; believed to be the first vocational high school specializing in agriculture in the country.
1927: Classrooms added to back of building.
1936: Classrooms and offices added at back and front, along with facade featuring three stone arches.
1954: Becomes Sparks Elementary School after the opening of Hereford High School.
1971: Building renovated.
1990-1993: Portable classrooms added as school swells to 450 students.
1993: One-third of students transferred to newly opened Jacksonville Elementary School.
Jan. 8, 1995: Sparks Elementary School destroyed by fire.