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Column: E. Rivers Elementary fire drew thousands
by Thornton Kennedy
Northside Neighbor Columnist
May 08, 2013 06:10 PM | 7739 views | 0 0 comments | 25 25 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Thornton Kennedy
Thornton Kennedy
E. Rivers Elementary School in Buckhead will be destroyed for the second time in its 96-year history this summer. This time, unlike the first, will be on purpose.

Opened in 1917 as Peachtree Heights School, the three-story stone building sat on land donated for the purpose of a school by the developers of the Peachtree Heights neighborhood, which included Eretus Rivers. On 500 acres acquired from the estate of Wash Collier, Rivers’ Peachtree Heights Co. developed in 1910 the nearly 400-home neighborhood stretching from Peachtree Battle Avenue to West Paces Ferry Road. In May 1926, the school’s name was changed to honor Rivers for his service on the Fulton County Board of Education.

Sept. 17, 1948, shortly after 3 p.m. and after the 321 students were dismissed, a blow-torch wielding janitor attempted to destroy a wasps’ nest and accidentally started a fire. The ensuing blaze sent flames 100 feet in the sky. The thick black smoke could be seen for miles, drawing thousands of spectators.

At the time, Buckhead was in unincorporated Fulton County. The small Buckhead fire department was first on the scene. Firefighters made it inside the school before the smoke and heat forced them to retreat. Contrary to an urban myth that city of Atlanta firefighters watched the building burn because the city limit was Peachtree Creek, the city fire department assisted. While no lives were lost, the building with its wood classrooms and staircases was a tinder box. All was lost save a few walls.

In a strange coincidence at the time of the fire, E. Rivers had an enclosed three-story metal fire escape slide attached to the side of the building that neighborhood children and students often used as a play slide.

After the fire, the displaced students attended classes at Garden Hills Elementary School, The Temple and Second Ponce De Leon Baptist Church while a new school was constructed. Designed by the architecture firm Stevens and Wilkinson, the new building opened in 1950. It received an architecture award for excellence and was featured in Time magazine.

That same building will be torn down over the summer and the students will relocate temporarily to Sutton Middle School. The new $16 million building is expected to be completed in December 2014.

This Friday, teachers, parents and students will attend the E. Rivers Spring Picnic from 5 to 8 p.m. With the school slated to be torn down, all E. Rivers alumni are invited to enjoy one last visit to the campus before it undergoes the transformation. My late mother, Mary Bird Kennedy, and grandfather, Alfred D. Kennedy Sr., were alum, as is my father, Alfred D. Kennedy Jr.

Buckhead resident Thornton Kennedy is a sixth-generation Atlantan and can be reached at

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