James English could not sleep the night before he moved into his new apartment across from Veteran's Park in the Village of Depew.
He still needed to buy a couch for the living room, the room that offered a commanding view of the historic post office where his father, the late Joseph English, served as village postmaster.
But the real reason this 87-year-old widower was wound up like a school boy was because his new apartment was in his old high school. And if there were ever a way to turn a tide of memories into a fountain of youth, English would be exactly where he needed to be.
"I'm living among a lot of memories," English said, after he moved into his new digs. "I'm back in history."
English was among the first wave of tenants to move into the restored 1914 high school at 591 Terrace Blvd. The 48-unit Terrace Park Apartments, designed for residents 55 and older, are a mix of one- and two-bedroom apartments and studio units, said Roger Hoffman, a partner in the apartment project.
Hoffman, owner of Northeast Mechanical, partnered with Mike Adolph of ADCO Properties Inc. to transform the former high school. Hoffman, who has worked on several restorative efforts, including the Lafayette Hotel in Buffalo, drove by the empty school many times on his way home to Depew. "Just the idea of owning a piece of historic property – the building itself – was beautiful," he recalled.
The original school on the site cost $60,000 to build when it opened in 1908, but it burned down in June 1913, said Arthur J. Domino, 80, the village historian and former Depew mayor. A new school, hailed by the state Department of Education as one of the leading secondary schools in the state, opened in April 1914. That 35,000-square-foot facility was designed by architect Edgar E. Joralemon.
"It's like a fortress," said Domino, who graduated in 1953 in the high school's second-to-last graduating class.
Deemed too small for a high school, the building became Terrace Elementary School. Terrace Elementary closed in 1986. The building was then used as the Depew school district's administration building until 2012.
The district agreed to sell the building to Hoffman and Adolf for $342,000 in 2014.
In renovating the former school, Hoffman retained a number of original features conceived by Joralemon, who had offices in Niagara Falls, Buffalo and New York City. Among them:
• Original interior doors could not be used, said Hoffman, because they no longer met state fire codes. So Hoffman placed them as decorative touches in the hallway walls.
• Drum ceilings in the hallways of the second and third floors were hidden by layers of drop ceilings and required nearly 1,000 manhours to expose and repair, said Hoffman.
• Supply cabinets where teachers stored chalk, paper, notebooks and pencils remain in the new living space as curio or china cabinets or bedroom dressers.
• The old stage proscenium from the school auditorium will live on in the community room of the apartment building.
• Apartments on the third floor feature hardwood floors taken from the school's auditorium. Blackened by years of grime, the boards were sanded and coated with clear varnish.
"When you get into adaptive reuse, there's always things you find that lead to change orders," said Hoffman. "Certain areas you thought you could get through but you could not."
Hoffman said the studio apartments are 240 square feet; one-bedroom units start at $975 and are 650 to 750 square feet; and the two-bedroom apartments average $1150 and range from 850 to 1,100 square feet. Fifteen of the 48 apartments are leased.
Mayor Jesse Nikonowicz applauded the senior housing development.
"As a mayor I am thrilled," Nikonowicz said. "We took a piece of property that was making no money for the village, and now it will generate a good amount of income. There's a huge number of baby boomers who will need housing, and Depew did not have it. Nobody wants to admit they are getting older, but the reality is we are, and at some point individuals may not be able to maintain their homes. If someone passes and you find yourself all alone, it's not so easy to hire a neighbor's kid anymore."
After he graduated from Depew's old high school, English married and moved to Lancaster. He worked as a serviceman for National Fuel. His wife died unexpectedly three years ago, causing his daughter Lynn Pino to scramble to find her father a home.
"My back was against the wall," Pino said. "A week before my mom died, she put their house up for sale in Lancaster. The house sold and he had to be out in a month."
English's first stop was Lancaster Towers on Pleasant Avenue. He did not like it.
He wanted to return to Depew, where kids of his generation paid a dime to attend double features at the old Depew Theatre on Main Street.
"In high school, I lived a block from school on Litchfield Avenue. My aunts and uncles lived on the other side of the high school – in the heart of the village," he said.
Now that he's back, living in his old school, English is looking forward to the summer concert series that will fill Veteran's Park across the street. As he sat in his new couch talking about high school days and his best friend's wedding, the future appeared bright for this soft-spoken man.
"I've come full circle," he said.