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Keeney Memorial Cultural Center: A Building With Many Uses

By Wethersfield Historical Society on September 14, 2010 2:05 PM
Keeney Keeney-thumb-2304x3072-77-thumb-175x233-82.jpgIn celebration of the Keeney Memorial Cultural Center's twentieth anniversary as a museum and cultural center, this collection blog topic is the building itself. How can a building be an object? It can and it is! The Keeney Memorial Cultural Center is central not only to Wethersfield Historical Society but also to the town, especially its educational history. The Keeney is not only this collections blog topic, it is an important part of Wethersfield's social history.
 In 1893 the town of Wethersfield purchased 2 ½ acres from William G. Comstock for $4,550. The town had purchased the land for the town's public secondary school, Center School. Educational reform was in full swing during the mid and late 19th century with compulsory attendance acts, John Dewey's pragmatic approach to education and the study of psychology applied to children.
    Wethersfield established the first Connecticut high school in September 1839. Students were expected to pay partial costs for running the school in return for their educational instruction.  The school functioned intermittently until 1849, when the cost of running the high school became too high for the First School Society to manage. The town was now without a high school until 1869, when Mr. Chauncey Rose offered to donate $6,000 towards the high school budget if the town would match with $2,000. The town raised the mill rate and was able with Mr. Rose's aid to re-establish the high school in the Old Academy. The high school remained in the Old Academy until 1894 when Center School opened for public education use.

Keeney CenterSchool-thumb-894x695-79-thumb-225x174-80.jpgCenter School was completed and opened in 1894. As the school moved out of the Old Academy, the First School Society turned over their jurisdiction of education to the town. When the building opened it housed four classrooms, a principal's office, library, playroom, restroom, two recitation rooms and an assembly hall.  Center School was constructed, landscaped and furnished for $23,000, approximately $543,000 in today's dollars. The structure remained unchanged until 1916, when the town added two additional wings onto the building due to increased enrollment levels. The first floor of the building contained grades five through eight, while grades nine through twelve were instructed on the second floor. In 1924, the school had its highest enrollment with 120 high school students and twenty-one in the graduating class. The Center School had run out of room, even with the recent additional of the wings.
Plans were made to construct the Wethersfield High School and the Silas Deane Junior High School. Center School continued to function as a secondary school until 1929 when the other schools were completed and it was converted into an elementary school. From 1929 to 1967 the building served as an elementary school for the local children. When Center School was converted into an elementary school, the name changed as well. Center School was renamed Governor Thomas Welles School in 1933. Governor Thomas Welles was the fourth governor of Connecticut and only governor from Wethersfield.

In 1940, in addition to the elementary school, the Wethersfield Public Library moved their books from the second floor of the Old Academy to the first floor of Welles School.  Following only seven years later, Town Hall vacated the Old Academy's first floor and moved into the second floor assembly hall of the Welles building. From 1947 through 1959, the Welles building served as the public library, town hall and one of the elementary schools.
Town hall and the library had both grown too large for their current space and, in 1959, moved to newly constructed buildings on the Silas Deane Highway. Welles School continued operating as an elementary school until 1967, when Hanmer School was opened. Between 1967 and 1983, it served as board of education auxiliary offices and the site for alternative high school classes.
Keeney town crewhanging sign-thumb-225x165-85.jpgWethersfield Historical Society Director Doug Alves, with the support of the Society Board, approached the Town Council with an ambitious plan to renovate and reuse the building. In 1983, the Town Council accepted the plan to renovate the building as a museum and cultural center for the community as a 350th anniversary gift to the town. For the next five years the Society was out fundraising. In 1988, the interior structural renovations began.

Keeney Robert Allan Keeney - 1944-thumb-225x326-94.jpgThe Society and community wondered what the museum and cultural center would be called, until 1989, when Mrs. Emma Keeney came forth to create a memorial that she and her husband had only dreamed of. The Keeney Memorial Cultural Center was named in honor of Ensign Robert Allan Keeney. Keeney was a local resident of Wethersfield, attended Charles Wright School, grew up on Wolcott Hill Road, sold vegetables with Bill Heath on Wells Road, loved baseball and even earned himself the nickname "bean head." Keeney had completed his first year of college at Wesleyan University, when he enlisted in the Navy in 1943. He was aboard the USS Indianapolis in July 1945 when, in the midst of security and secrecy, a cargo of atom bomb components was loaded aboard. Shortly after midnight of July 29th 1945, the Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine.  The second torpedo knocked out all electric power aboard ship - and any chance for an SOS.  Sea water surged into the gaping hole and the Indianapolis began to sink.  Officers ordered the men to abandon ship. Within twelve minutes, the ship sank. Robert Keeney was one of the town's last casualties of World War II.
The Keeney Memorial Cultural Center had begun its work with renovation, earned itself an honorable name and in January 27, 1990 opened to the public. The Keeney Center today has three gallery spaces, an education classroom, rental space, Chamber of Commerce office, hall for cultural concerts and events. Come in and join us at 200 Main Street if you would like to see the remarkable building, stop by and admire the architecture, reminisce of your school days or join us for a cultural event!