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Our Rich History: Third District School is now an office building, Fifth Street Center in Covington


By David E. Schroeder
Special to NKyTribune

Travelers taking the Fifth Street Interstate-75 exit into Covington see this building often, but many have no idea it was once a thriving school serving Covington’s Westside neighborhood. The building is now called the Fifth Street Center and is home to many businesses.

The origins of Third District School can be found in the pre-Civil War era. On April 10, 1850, the Covington City Council officially authorized the construction of a new schoolhouse at the southeastern corner of Philadelphia and Fifth Streets. A three-story school was quickly built on the site. Enrollment during the first year of operation reached 96.

1939 School. Courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library, Covington, KY.

Main Street was becoming the center of a major business district and the area along the Ohio River was quickly filling up with industrial enterprises. As a result, the neighborhood was becoming a desirable place to live and raise a family. Third District School enrollment increased dramatically.

The original building had problems from the very beginning. Within a decade, structural problems were weakening the integrity of the building. The north wall was leaning to such an extent that some parents were removing their children from the school. Residents began asking that the building be demolished and replaced. Instead, school officials determined to repair the existing structure. In 1869, six large iron rods were placed through the floors of the building to keep the walls in plumb. Despite these issues, the school thrived. New teachers were added to the faculty, including a German instructor who taught many of the pupils, who were German immigrants or their children.

The 1869 repairs did not solve the long-term problem with the building. In 1877, the school board appointed a special committee to inspect the building. Their findings included evidence of an inadequate foundation and structurally unsafe walls. The committee recommended the demolition of the building and the construction of a new one. he school was declared unsafe and students were moved to temporary classrooms in a building at the corner of Fourth and Madison Avenue and a building on Bullock Street.

School being transformed into the Fifth Street Center, 1983. Courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library, Covington, KY.

Plans for a new Third District were accepted by the board in 1877. The new brick, three-story building included a central stair hall with four entrances. Bids came in at $22,675 and construction began. The new building was the pride of the Westside when completed. By 1880, 667 pupils were being taught by 13 teachers.

Societal changes in the years following World War I had an impact on Third District. More children were attending school and for longer periods of time. In addition, teaching methods were changing. Third District School was showing signs of age and could no longer house the growing student body. The Great Depression, however, made it very difficult for the school board to raise funds to replace the building.

Fortunately, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was providing funds for such projects. The Covington School District benefited greatly from this program and was able to build four new elementary schools and an administration building using a combination of local and WPA funds. In 1939, work on a new steel and brick Third District School was underway on the site of the previous building. The new Third District School was open for public inspection in January 1940. The modern structure contained a sufficient number of classrooms and modern amenities like an auditorium.

 Entry, 1939 School. Courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library, Covington, KY.

Demographic shifts in the Civil War era brought about the creation of Third District School. Reverse demographic changes resulted in its demise. In the years following World War II, residents began leaving the urban core for the suburbs. These losses were somewhat mitigated by the post-war baby boom.

However, by the 1960s, Covington’s Westside was rapidly losing population. The construction of Interstate 75 resulted in an exit ramp onto Fifth Street at Philadelphia right in front of Third District School. Homes were being demolished at a fast pace and the neighborhood was becoming much less residential.

In 1981, the decision was made to close Third District School. Eventually, the building was purchased by the Matth Toebben Construction Company and converted into an office building. Both the interior and exterior were greatly modernized, including a completely new façade. The building was renamed the Fifth Street Center and still exists today.

David E. Schroeder is Director of the Kenton County Public Library, the author of Life Along the Ohio: A Sesquicentennial History of Ludlow, Kentucky (2014), and coeditor of Gateway City: Covington, Kentucky, 1815-2015 (2015).

1877 School. Courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library, Covington, KY.

Fifth Street Center, 1985. Courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library, Covington, KY.


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