NORTH ADAMS -- When city and school officials cast the first ceremonial shovelfuls of dirt for the construction of a new Drury High School on Sept. 8, 1915, they did so with full knowledge the city was the sole holder of the title and deed to the land upon which the original Drury Academy was built in 1843.
Ownership of the land, which has been in the possession of the city since the City Council accepted the appointment of "trustee of the land" on Sept. 7, 1915, has come into question numerous times over the last 169 years, based on a caveat in the will of Nathan Drury, who bequeathed $3,000 to the city in his will in 1840 for the purchase of land and the establishment of an academy "for the instruction of youth in all branches of literature.
At the City Council's Nov. 27 meeting, Councilor Jennifer Breen raised the question of if the city should investigate whether the use of the school, which was last known as Silvio O. Conte Middle School, over the last three years was enough to keep it in the hands of the city, referring to a section of Drury's will that would revert the land back to his heirs.
Drury, a prosperous farmer from Florida and first president of the Adams State Bank, left numerous instructions in his will, including that the school should always bear his name; that the school should be built of brick and that it must have a marble plaque with a detailed inscription about him on the building. His will also established a board of 13 trustees who would oversee the school and a stipulation that should the school "cease to be so occupied for one year it shall revert to my heirs."
Superintendent James E. Montepare argued at the Nov. 27 council meeting that while the building was discontinued as a middle school, it has remained in use, not only as the site of the North Adams Public School's district offices, but also for instruction. The school district recently relocated its revamped Community Transition Program from Johnson School to the former middle school's lower floor.
Similar questions about the clause in Drury's will, which was filed in the Northern Berkshire Registry of Deeds when the land for the original Drury Academy was purchased by the executor of his estate, have arisen on several occasions including a challenge by one of his heirs in 1915.
According to a March 1915 article in the Transcript, an "heir of Nathan Drury" had hired an Adams attorney to investigate any claims to the land, as the city was in the process of planning to build a new high school that would not adhere to the specifications in the will and would leave the building unused for at least two years during construction. The article does not name the supposed heir, who would have to be a descendent of a nephew, as Drury and his widow, Freelove, did not have any children.
While little is recorded of the outcome of that inquiry, which was also reported by the Boston Globe in March 1915, the Drury Academy Trustees would ask the state Attorney General a month later in April to request that all property and buildings under its purview be transferred to the city.
The request was made by the Drury Academy Trustees, as the city was not willing to invest the some $200,000 to replace the Drury Academy, which was largely condemned at the time, and the trustees had no means to build a new school.
On Aug. 31, 1915, the state Supreme Judicial Court decreed that the city had 60 days to accept the role of "trustee" and that as trustee it "would hold title to said property subject to the terms and conditions of said trust, and perpetually maintain the same for educational purposes."
The design for the new high school, which opened in 1917 and remained in use as a high school until the opening of the current Drury High School on South Church Street, originally incorporated the Drury Academy in its design. The former academy was utilized as a gymnasium until it was torn down in 1973, and a new addition was built for what would become the middle school.
However, the 18-room Drury Academy that was built in 1867 and remained in place until 1973, was the second version of the public school. In 1866, the Drury Academy Trustees granted a 99-year lease to the city and granted it permission to tear down the original school, built in 1843, under the conditions that it would be valued at three times the cost of the original.
The ownership of the land was also brought into question in 1867 when the Drury Academy Trustees granted a small portion of the land purchased for the school to an adjacent landowner, who had built upon the school's land. The decision to transfer the land was made after the neighbor claimed that he had owned and used the small corner of land for over 20 years. It was reported by the Albany Times Union that a Drury heir questioned if the clause in the will was now active, as "not all of the land was being used for educational purposes."
In addition, not all of the land that makes up the footprint of the former high school was purchased by the trustees of the academy. In 1965, the city purchased the former St. Francis Rectory to create a parking lot for the school. It also purchased adjacent lots from the heirs of Thayer Shepard in 1907 and from Elizabeth Knight in 1911.
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