Shoreham-Wading River school district officials are seeking potential buyers for the Briarcliff Elementary School, a former Gold Coast mansion that was shuttered four years ago when officials said it was no longer needed.
Officials said selling or leasing the ornate, two-story school atop a secluded tree-covered property could save the district about $95,000 annually in maintenance expenses. Officials said they ruled out alternative uses — such as a district office or a library — as impractical or unnecessary.
Briarcliff is beloved by many former students and Shoreham residents, who say the century-old building is inextricably linked to the community's early history. Many in the community hope it is preserved and used for a new purpose, such as senior housing or a recreational center.
“I don’t think anybody wants to see a developer buy it and tear it down. That would be the worst-case scenario for everybody,” said David Madigan, a former student who serves on the board of the nearby Tesla Science Center. “It was a pretty wonderful place to go to school and it’s a building with a rich history.”
Briarcliff, which had been purchased by the Shoreham school district in 1950, before it merged with the Wading River district, was closed in 2014 due to declining enrollment and a change in grade configuration that moved students to the district's two other elementary schools.
Officials held a series of community meetings in recent years to discuss the building and explore options for using it. They said the school was too large for most alternative uses, and the cost of renovating the space could be daunting.
“The building is just over 30,000 square feet," school board president Michael Lewis said in an interview last week. "It wouldn’t be really practical to move the administrative office there.”
Superintendent Gerard Poole said officials are reluctant to seek historical designation for the school, which was built in 1907.
“Sometimes that makes restrictions for the owner. That may be good or that may be not good,” he said. “There really wasn’t a clear value to the school district to do that.”
Lewis and Poole said they could not estimate the property's potential market value at this stage in the process.
Madigan said the school is “near and dear to everybody’s heart” for its "impressive facade" and unique features: Some walls still bear the names of students who lived there when Briarcliff served as a summer boarding school in the late 1940s, Madigan said.
He said Tesla Science Center officials are exploring whether to use the school for educational programs, “but we certainly don’t need" to use the whole building.
Mike Goralski, president of the Shoreham Civic Association, said he and others are hopeful that district officials sell or lease Briarcliff to someone who appreciates its history enough to save it from the wrecking ball.
"I think they’ve exhausted all options and I’m sure they're making the best decisions they can for the community, and that may be to sell it,” Goralski said. “I’d like for it not to be destroyed at all. It’s such a nice building.”
An estate with class(rooms)
1907: Briarcliff constructed by oil tycoon Richard Upham.
1926: The Upham family spent $65,000 on a new wing, with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, wine cellar, fireplace and hand-carved wood panels.
1946-1947: Estate sold to Tower Hill House Inc. A private school, Lycee Francais, operated a summer school at the estate during these years.
1947: Donald Upham, the mansion's last resident, died.
1950: Briarcliff and three outbuildings, including a garage, carriage house and gardener's cottage, sold to Shoreham school district for $30,500. The district spent $42,000 to convert it to a public school.
1957: Gymnasium and three classrooms added.
2014: School closed.