By Corey Jenkins, Better Kenmore CDC
After standing tall at 941 Chester Avenue for 105 years, Smith Elementary School began to crumble to the ground last week. In the days that followed the wrecking ball arrived to take down what remained of the building and Kenmore said goodbye to a piece of neighborhood history.
Smith Elementary School was constructed in 1918 and named in honor of Fred E. Smith – a leader in the early development of Kenmore who donated the land where the school was built. There were few homes near the school when it opened and some members of the community never expected there would ever be enough children to fill it.
When the school opened it was surrounded by brush, trees, and rock piles and did not have a playground. So in 1923 principal Ralph Myers and some of the older school boys grabbed axes, picks, and mattocks and began clearing away the trees and brush. The clearings they made provided spaces for the children to play and slide down the hill during recess.
Houses began springing up like mushrooms around Smith Elementary and any doubts the community had about there ever being enough children to fill the school were laid to rest. By 1927 every available room in the school was in use and some classes even had to be taught in the basement. One teacher had 59 students in her classroom, while another was responsible for over 80 first graders.
Several improvements were made to the school over the years. WPA workers installed the stone wall around the playground during The Great Depression and in 1955 the building underwent an expansion just as enrollment was reaching 500 students.
Smith Elementary School would serve the Kenmore neighborhood for almost a century, and countless students and teachers made lifelong memories there throughout its history.
Former teacher Alta Williams wrote of an incident that occurred at the school one night during the 1920s. One of the other teachers had decided to stay late only to find herself locked inside when she tried to leave. Not willing to spend the night in the school, she went to the basement, broke a window, and crawled out. She made it home safe that night, but the fur coat she was wearing was damaged during her escape.
Matthew Hines was a student at Smith Elementary School from 1979 until 1986 and has many memories from his years at the school – including his experiences with teachers like Miss Mills who was the first person to ever encourage him to be himself.
He also remembers what lunch was like at Smith.
“We didn’t have a cafeteria, so for lunch we would go to the gym and purchase cartons of milk and frozen dinners that were then heated up in huge ovens on the stage,” Matthew recalled.
In the early 1990s, Gina Wilson (who now owns The Center Dance + Yoga Studio on Kenmore Blvd.) attended Smith Elementary and remembers loving Mrs. Delac's art class.
“Art class was the best,” Gina said. “One year we made clay penguins and mine turned out so good that it wound up on display in the mayor's office!”
News arrived in late 2015 that Akron Public Schools would close both Smith and Lawndale Elementary schools at the end of the school year. In September 2019, Smith Elementary School was auctioned off for $44,000. The purchaser never made use of the building and it quickly fell into disrepair.
On April 17, 2022, Smith caught on fire just three months after a multiple-alarm fire destroyed Lawndale Elementary School. It took firefighters about an hour to get the fire under control and no cause or injuries were ever reported. The school would remain standing for another 15 months until it suffered a partial structural collapse during a summer night in July 2023.