Hillside Avenue wall fades into history

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When Naugatuck High School was housed in the school that is now Hillside Intermediate School, students would paint this wall. After the high school moved to Rubber Avenue, the tradition of painting the wall faded into history. RA ARCHIVE
NAUGATUCK — All in all, they were all just stones in the wall.

Decades ago, when Naugatuck High School was housed in the historic building that is now Hillside Intermediate School, students every year painted a stone wall across the street from the school’s main entrance. Although school administrators forbade them, saying they were defacing borough property, students always managed to paint a large “N” and their graduation years in garnet on a gray background.

The tradition ended in 1959, when the high school on Rubber Avenue was built. Now the wall across from Hillside is overgrown and few in the borough remember its former significance.

At least 10 feet tall, the wall rises out of the side of Hillside Avenue, the borough’s only brick road. The stones are set into a hill of boulders, brush and trees topped by the stone overlook on Fairview Avenue.

The wall was likely built around the same time the school was, in the early 1900s, and was meant to stop erosion rather than be decorated, Town Historian Sandra Clark said.

“It had its time when the high school was there,” Clark said. “When that left, there was nothing of importance there that I could recollect.”

Painting the wall was a big event for high school students at the time, said Clark, who graduated in 1949 from the school.

“It was a tradition and we liked it, and we painted ’49’ on it ourselves,” Clark said. “We had to do it in the dark of the night when we couldn’t be seen, and in the morning it would miraculously say, ‘Class of. …'”

Students braved administrators’ ire to take pictures of each other in front of the wall, photos that appear in 1950s yearbooks.

Not everyone had fond feelings for the painted wall, said Burgess Robert J. Burns, who graduated from the school with a war diploma in 1944.

“It would be all scrambled all over the place, different colors and everything, and at that time it was a sight to behold for the officials,” Burns said. “I didn’t like seeing it on there because it stood out and it was nothing that was approved by the school or student body or anything else.”

Burns said he has never heard complaints about its current state.

“It’s never come up at any of the meetings,” Burns said. “They’re more concerned with the brick road than anything else.”

Residents have been lobbying town officials for years to repair and restore the brick road, which was paved in 1922 with grooved bricks to give horses traction as they climbed the steep hill. The bricks are now crumbling, and the cement underneath is deteriorating, creating wavy bumps in the road.

The road winds uphill around the school and makes it possible for the school to have ground-floor entrances on three different stories, a feat that landed the building a spot in the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! catalog.

Famed industrialist John H. Whittemore donated the Hillside building to the borough along with the Congregational Church and the Howard Whittemore Memorial Library. The school was built in 1905 in the shape of a classical temple, and was painstakingly restored in the 1960s after a fire.

The same affectionate efforts do not apply to the wall across the street, which is mostly obscured by bushes, vines and ferns.

Public works crews will likely cut some of the brush away, Director of Public Works James Stewart said. If the stones are coming loose, the wall will be shored up to prevent debris from falling in the road, Stewart said.

“We have walls that age over time,” Stewart said. “I don’t think it’s going to fall over one day.”