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Senior housing at shuttered Ken-Ton school will respect its history

The cavalry is coming to fix up the former Philip Sheridan School.

The elementary school on Elmwood Avenue in the Town of Tonawanda closed in 1982, but in the years since has hosted everything from continuing education classes to a day care and gymnastics program.

Markers of the past abound. A prop arm used in plays sits on a table in the former cafeteria. The original boilers and a student rifle range remain in the basement. An air raid horn pokes out from a wall on the second floor.

Now, a development team is preparing to start construction on a long-planned, $30 million transformation of the school and a neighboring sports field into a senior housing complex.

The developers say KenTon Elmwood Commons will respect the building's long history, add a much-needed living option for Ken-Ton's seniors and – with the day care and gymnasts staying – create a community hub for people of all ages.

"The whole thing, the vision, is intergenerational," said John Duerr, the director of development and project manager.

Philip Sheridan Elementary School was built in 1948 to help serve the expected post-World War II surge in enrollment in Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda. The school, just like the thoroughfare that divides the north and south parts of the town, was named after the Union general whose cavalry corps aggressively pursued the Confederate Army during the Civil War.

The former Philip Sheridan Elementary School will be renovated into senior housing, theater space and community rooms. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

By the early 1980s, however, Philip Sheridan and a number of other schools in the district closed as the student population began to decline.

Still, the building continued to serve the community, hosting the Buffalo Turners gymnastics club for 33 years, adult continuing education, a Citizen Science Community Resources office, School Board meetings and, in recent years, the Blue Giraffe day care program.

But with the school district moving its remaining operations from Philip Sheridan to the newly vacated Kenmore Middle School, the building at 3200 Elmwood Ave. was put on the market.

School officials viewed a conversion to apartments as the best use, and in spring 2018 district voters agreed to sell the 72,000-square-foot building and the rest of the 8-acre property to CMS Rentals for $1 million.

Closing on the sale and preparing for the start of renovations took longer than expected, Duerr said, pointing as one example to the effort and expense required to remove an old, 12,000-gallon steel heating oil tank buried underneath the parking lot.

"It delayed our whole project," Duerr said.

But on a recent tour of the school building, Duerr said he's optimistic work can start in August on the existing building as the developers await site plan approval for the expansion. Work would finish early next year on the Philip Sheridan building and in spring 2021 on the new building.

Duerr, who moved into the former principal's office in June 2018, is the chief rainmaker on the project, helping Thomas and Phyllis Siskar of CMS Rentals sell their vision for the property to local elected officials, community members and others.

A classroom on the second floor in the former Philip Sheridan Elementary School. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The renovated Philip Sheridan building will have 15 senior apartments on the second floor – each taking up an old classroom – and space for the Blue Giraffe, Buffalo Turners and other organizations on the first floor. That's the all-ages appeal of the development, Duerr said.

Behind Philip Sheridan, on the former athletic fields, developers plan to construct a 3 1/2-story, 200,000-square foot building with 154 senior apartments.

The partners are negotiating with a major theater group to manage the Philip Sheridan stage and auditorium, Duerr said.

"We want this to be an entertainment venue for the Town of Tonawanda," he said. The partners also hope to rebuild a neighborhood playground on the site.

Historic preservation rules require the developers to retain many features of the existing building. Duerr said they were lucky to find the original blueprints, dated March 1948, to help guide their reuse of the building.

He said they have found many features that date to its opening, including an underground coal bin that served the school's old coal-fired boilers. The kitchen still has walk-in coolers and freezers and the partners are looking at whether someone could take over that space and the community room in the former cafeteria.

There's a dumbwaiter and a phone booth with a pay phone inside that no longer works.

An old phone booth on the first floor in the former Philip Sheridan Elementary School. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

"We're going to try to find an old phone to put in there," Duerr said.

Thirty of the lockers still had locks on them when KenTon Elmwood Commons took control of the school. Duerr said he's been cutting off the locks one at a time but hasn't found hidden treasure yet. One recently exhumed locker had six dusty Pepsi cans, wrinkled papers and a kit that let future office workers practice how to file paperwork.

One classroom had a 20-minute Pilates VHS tape sitting on a desk and an Atari 2600 gaming system, among other ephemera.

The developers must retain the checkered tile floors, the tiling on the walls, glass-block classroom windows, student lockers and even the air raid horns.

"That's part of the history," Duerr said.

Developer plans to turn Philip Sheridan school into senior apartments

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