Photographs and Story By Steve Novotney

I lived directly across the street from Clay School for three years, and that’s when I learned about Darryl Bayne’s dream. He bought the 83,000-square-foot building for $65,000 in 2004 because he was convinced the former schoolhouse could be reused as an extraordinary science and community center.

That is his dream, and he has held it close to his heart for several years before finally deciding a year ago to actively search for a faculty position at a college or university. When he acquired the property, though, Baynes believed he could gain grant funding to transform the structure into an education center. Baynes’ expertise is in science education, and prior to accepting his current position, he traveled the country making science-based presentations in schools and community centers.

Clay - Mural

Soon after the purchase of Clay, he gained support to replace the windows, but since then little assistance has followed. His story has been told often by local media outlets, but the reputation connected to the area seemed impossible to overcome when I made a few phone calls in an attempt to help.

Clay - Sharpener

But today is a different day for the corner of 15th and Wood streets. A shiny new J.B. Chambers Recreation Park erased the infamous “15th –and-Wood” drug scene and redefined the East Wheeling neighborhood, and all of a sudden folks from throughout the Upper Ohio Valley are no longer afraid to venture into this section of Wheeling.

Clay - hole in Ceiling

And there sits Clay School, a building that once housed a community of students and teachers and staff members. As the neighborhood deteriorated more and more in the early to mid 1980s and drug trafficking was a common sight 60 feet away from the school’s front doors, the challenges bloated past the teacher’s lesson plan. In the mid 1990s, the Ohio County Board of Education approved the closure of Clay School, and it has sat empty since.

Clay - 3rd - Massive Damage


Clay - Literature

I toured the former facility this past summer, and inside the walls of Clay School is much more than you expect when first walking into the basement entrance. The structure stretches nearly half the block along 15th Street and is now located directly across from the new sports complex. The interior is now worn and torn, and by today’s standards it is far from ADA compliant. There are chalkboards with that final day’s final lessons still scrawled on them, and textbooks, pencil sharpeners, pint-sized water fountains, wide halls, tall ceilings, and even an American Flag that still flies. Bullet holes speckle a few of the windows, but the owner said those occurred after the school’s closure.

Clay - Last Lesson


Clay - Chalkboard Down

The air grew thicker the higher I climbed the staircase. The rooms on the first two floors have cracked and crumbled some, especially the gym and auditorium areas, but the third floor has nearly collapsed, and the odor of decay overwhelmed me a few times. Water damage has dropped ceilings and chalkboards to the floor, and the fallen plaster and damp floors combine to provide a most musty atmosphere.

Clay - Gymnasium

The classrooms are now clear of the desks and those chalk erasers, and few records were left behind in the offices. Thanks to the stories told by former Clay staffer Ann Thomas during my tour I was able to imagine the children of all races and religions roaming the halls inside a structure that became their safe haven away from the nefarious activity taking place just beyond the walls.

Clay - Tour Group

Thomas showed me her old mail slot, one that still bore her name, and she named names and told tales about the children and the teachers. And she despised the decision to close Clay School, saying that it was “…for all the wrong reasons.”

Clay - wooden lockers

It’s not too late for Clay School, Baynes insists, and that’s because the bones of the building are good. The structure needs a new, $500,000 roof, and the leaning façade in the east corner along 15th Street needs addressed, but otherwise it stands firm.

Clay - Flag Flying

Baynes listed the property for $400,000 with Paul & Associates a year ago, and it is now being shown by representatives of several real estate firms. The property owner told me last week there have been several inquiries, and the leading idea now is to establish a community and children’s center on the first floor and residential living on the second and third levels.

Clay - hallway

“With the field across the street now, something could happen with it,” Baynes said. “I’d love to see it happen. I’d love to see someone with the means make the dream come true.”

Clay - Field - Bullet Holes

24 Responses

  1. shawn spear sr

    I went to clay school in the 70s, 1st grade thru 6th grade, lotsa memories, i drive by it often, and am still amazed at the size of the building

  2. Anonymous

    It would be nice to see this building fixed! I went to Clay School from K-4 the grade…I believe it closed before my 5 the grade yr!! Mr.Nick was the principal!!

    • thomas forshey

      i went their too, when i started zack Springer was principal,then Thomas inicetti took the job,,just got thru writeing down names of kids i went to school with,it wasn’t too bad in de late 60 s

  3. tony domenick

    I graduated West Liberty with his wife in 2005. Both he and she have worked tirelessly to improve that area and were met with disdain from the beginning. It is structually sound and if it were to be built today would cost millions, so his asking price is not out of line even with the needed repairs.

  4. susie smith osborn

    I went there from when it opened (1943) through 1951. Then my family moved from Wheeling. Got a good education there, both academically and socially. Sorry to see it in sad shape.

  5. Karen Bruechle

    I grew up in East Wheeling and went to Clay. I hate seeing it look like this, and I hope someone can do something with it. If I ever win the lottery, I will donate some of the money to help.

  6. Charlyn Mumley Hickey

    I went to Clay School for 9 years and taught there for five years. I have many good memories of the students and the staff.

    • Richard Smith

      I didn’t know that you taught there. Do you remember, Mrs. McKee, Mr. Gong, Mr. Sweeney. I came to Clay school when I was in the fifth grade.

      • Mary hall wendel

        Went to school there in 1967 , 9th grade , did not like the dreaded Mrs. McKee , she picked on kids for not being smart enough or for their status in their lives , sorry but she made going to school dreaded for many of us

    • Anonymous

      My music teacher was the greatest!!! Ms. Gitlin, I forget the spelling because it was so long ago. But I still have the best memories of that wonderful caring woman.

  7. thewheelinger

    I believe the renovation of Clay School is the single most important project left for East Wheeling to overcome. I also believe that Baynes’ asking price is disgusting and he is not doing himself, his realtor, the building or the neighborhood any favors by asking 5x or more what the fair market value is. A solution for this building means a major solution for East Wheeling and it all starts with a fair listing price.

  8. jbowsher

    My mother attended Clay School in the 1950s. I sincerely hoped this building can be saved. The building has many beautiful features!

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