BERKELEY – After many years of disuse, the Manitou Park schoolhouse might get new life breathed into it after the township receives a grant for restoring it.
The one-room schoolhouse on Third Avenue in the center of the neighborhood wouldn’t become a school again. Those days have passed. It would be a community center, something residents have wanted for years.
The township is going to be receiving a Manitou Park Schoolhouse Historic Preservation Grant in the amount of $656,000.
Business Administrator John Camera said it is a 50/50 matching grant, and that Berkeley will make their portion of it from sale of property.
Councilwoman Judith Noonan, whose ward includes Manitou, said that work could even start in the spring. She emphasized that it will be renovated, not torn down. The goal is for it to be a meeting place for the community.
“We’ve been actively pursuing this for a number of years,” Mayor Carmen Amato said, noting that the sale of lots will go to Homes For All. This organization has been building the larger homes in the area.
During the Township Council’s re-organization meeting last month, they appointed Mills & Schnoering for Architectural Services for Manitou Park Schoolhouse Project and Authorizing Receipt of Proposals for General Architectural Services.
Currently, the property has basketball courts, a picnic area, and restroom facilities (that are not attached to the building). The outside of the property has been used by residents, particularly by youth groups that would culminate in a big summer barbecue.
The schoolhouse has a storied past, built in 1929 during segregation. Old clippings of news articles speak of Ku Klux Klan rallies in the area. Its construction caused a great deal of controversy, and was reported in New York, Philadelphia, and even Chicago newspapers.
According to the historic register, it was constructed by a company called the Asbestos Building Company, which is one of the reasons that township officials said they wanted to make sure the renovation was done right.
The children of this historically black section of Berkeley were attending Toms River schools. The school board thought that the children would do better going to a school of their own, with a teacher of their own race, according to Sarah Gamble. She told her story to the Ocean County Observer more than a decade ago. She passed away in 2011. She had attended the school, and later taught there.
The school board rented a facility on Center Street in South Toms River and hired a teacher, Gamble said.
Parents refused to send their children to the substandard school with inferior education, she said. They were out of school for a year before the school board gave in and built the Manitou Park School House. The entire school was prefabricated and shipped to the site on the railroad that used to run through town. It later expanded to three rooms.
The building had been vacant from 1959 to 1964. It was purchased by the township and Ocean Inc. ran programs out of it from 1964 to 1996 under the name: the Central Community Development Center. Workers would set homeless people up with apartments and distribute food and clothing to the needy.
In 2001, the town was awarded a $28,898 Garden State Historic Preservation Trust Fund Historic Site Management Grant to help “fund a preservation plan to report on historical information concerning the school and neighborhood as well as a building conditions assessment, engineering report, materials conservation report, and proposals for barrier-free accessibility,” according to a state website. “The one-room vernacular schoolhouse was built in 1929 to serve the largest African-American community in Ocean County outside of Lakewood. It is the only public building in Manitou Park with historic ties to the early 20th century black community settlement in Berkeley Township.”