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Marleah E. Graves Building in Saugus has a quirky history

Janice Jarosz, president of the MEG Foundation, has been doing research on the history of the building. (Spenser R. Hasak)

SAUGUS — The floors of the Marleah E. Graves Building are gleaming and the blackboards seemingly untouched. But if the halls could talk, they would tell stories.

Once a neighborhood school with a sweet teacher and a dentist who made the children scream, the red brick building on Essex Street survived the threat of demolition and now serves a new purpose in the heart of Saugus.

“I never went to this school and I didn’t know about this school,” said town historian and president of the MEG Foundation Janice Jarosz. “I heard it was going to be torn down and I became consumed by it.”

Charles Bond

The land on which the school was built was donated by Charles Bond I in the late 1800s. The Romanesque style building was completed in 1894 and was set to be named after Bond. Unexpectedly, Town Meeting members voted instead to call it the Cliftondale School after the neighborhood in which it resides. The original name appears on the school’s blueprints and blank plaque intended to display Bond’s name still exists outside the school.

“They changed the name but they didn’t have the guts to put it on that plaque,” said Jarosz.

Bond was a philanthropist. In his home, he created the first public library and YMCA in Saugus. He became the first member of the William Sutton Lodge at age 21, sponsored entertainment to come to town, and donated his property to be used to build the school and a church.

“He owned half of Cliftondale,” said Jarosz.

Bond started working in the tobacco industry at his father’s Lincoln Avenue cigar store at the age of 17. He later opened Waitt & Bond with Henry Waitt on the same road. The business grew rapidly and relocated to Boston. It became the largest cigar manufacturer in New England and one of the largest in the country.

Bond’s Saugus home later burned down. He moved to Boston and maintained a summer home in Swampscott on Puritan Road.

In 1908, while at the Swampscott home, Bond went to the third floor, filled up the bathtub and drowned. He left a note for his wife Isabella that said “All the people that I’ve cared for have abandoned me.”

“I believe he died of a broken heart,” said Jarosz.

Through his will, he provided funding for several scholarships.

The Cliftondale School

For nearly a century, the building served as a neighborhood elementary school for the children in the Cliftondale area. There were six other elementary schools in Saugus at the time.

“Kids all walked to school together, played together, they were all friends,” said Jarosz.

What most remember about the school is a bit of an oddity.

Dr. Robert P. Beckman, a dentist married to the school’s principal, had a clinic in a tiny room inside the school house, where he charged a quarter to pull, fill, or clean student’s teeth.

According to a report by the Board of Health in 1934, Beckman completed 260 deciduous extractions — or pulled 260 baby teeth — and 20 permanent extractions. He performed 179 fillings, 160 prophylactic treatments, and saw 624 patients.

“I remember being in the first grade at the Felton School and the whole class walked over (to the Cliftondale School),” said Jarosz. “We were told we had to bring in a quarter and we stood there in line, with our quarters in our hands, listening to the screams and horror coming from that room.”

The last bell

The school closed its doors in 1980 along with several other town-owned buildings. Attempts to sell the structure were unsuccessful and it sat vacant until it was rented to North Shore Educational Collaborative, a private, Medford-based alternative school for emotionally unstable adolescents.

Changes were made to the school’s layout to accommodate its new use, including adding walls to separate the larger original classrooms and replacing antique wooden doors with steel ones. Once the school relocated, the building again sat idle and was at risk of being torn down. It was littered with graffiti and dead birds when the foundation got their hands on it in 1990, said Jarosz.

“When I first went in, it was full of pigeons,” said Jarosz. “A lot of people didn’t think we could do it. A group of us got together and looked around and said, ‘We can do this.’ Another group told us we couldn’t. That’s when we decided we had to.”

Marleah E. Graves Building

Because of the small size and sense of community at the Cliftondale School, students often maintained closer relationships with teachers.

One teacher in particular, Marleah Elizabeth Graves, taught at the school for 47 consecutive years. After school, she would allow her best students to visit her home and make brownies with her, said Jarosz.

“I’ve interviewed probably 100 people over the years about this school,” said Jarosz, who is writing a book about the building’s history. “One particular man told me his family was going through hard times and (Graves) made a huge impact on his life. I asked, ‘How so?’ and he said, ‘She gave me a hug.'”

Graves died at the age of 86 on the school’s centennial anniversary, according to an Item story from 1994. She attended Saugus Public Schools and graduated from Saugus High School in 1925. She won the National Elementary School Teacher of the Year award in 1970.

In 1994, more than a dozen years after the Cliftondale School closed, Town Meeting members voted to rename the building in her honor.

The foundation received a $50,000 Good Neighbor grant from General Electric that covered a new gas system for heat, new windows, and new electrical system. Money for the remainder of the work, about $250,000, was raised by Saugus residents, said Jarosz.

The antique windows were removed and sold to raise money for the project, she said.

There are still additional tasks on the to-do list. Most importantly, Jarosz said the foundation’s board wants to make the building handicap accessible with a lift, which would cost about $22,000. The alternative, an elevator, would cost $100,000, said Jarosz.

A new use for the space

A group of volunteers spend each week maintaining and preserving the history of the property. On any given day, they can be seen entering the building with a can of paint to freshen up the walls or a bottle of floor wax to make sure the floors remain gleaming.

The space is rented out for events. Each year, a pair of Saugus men turn the building’s basement into an elaborate haunted house and raise money for local charities. Another resident uses classroom space for a popular cursive writing class that runs for several weeks. Professionals can also request the space for business meetings and other events.

The Festival of Trees is the foundation’s primary cash source of the year. The money goes toward keeping the lights on and other expenses, which are all funded by the group of volunteers. The biggest expense, said Jarosz, is heating the former school, which was built in 1892.

“During some cold winters, (the bill) has been $10,000,” she said.

The festival began eight years ago with about 30 trees and now more than 50 line the classrooms.

 

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