Schools Too Grand to be Turned into Trash
By Robert A. M. Stern
Driven by a desire to prepare New York City's children for success in an economy built on computers and communication, some city leaders want to abandon or demolish existing public schools and replace them with state-of-the-art buildings. What they overlook is the beauty and value of hundreds of wonderful school buildings that are among the great glories of our city. New York doesn't have to savage this heritage to get technologically functional schools.
The old buildings are well planned, exceptionally sturdy and adaptable. Those from the early 1900's, especially, are grandly proportioned, with beautifully detailed facades of brick and stone and high-ceilinged classrooms flooded with natural light. If thoughtfully retrofitted and conscientiously maintained, they can continue to serve us well -- even brilliantly.
Some people have claimed that it is too difficult to add elevators, air conditioning and, especially, computer wiring to the old schools. But while the low-ceilinged ''efficient'' schools built in more recent decades really may present daunting problems for renovators, the grand old schools have ample space for elevators and high ceilings that allow ducts and wiring to be placed within suspended corridor ceilings. Besides, the rapidly increasing speed and effectiveness of wireless networks may soon make at least part of the concern outmoded.
Remarkably, many of New York's fine old schools were designed by a single architect, Charles B. J. Snyder, the Board of Education's chief architect from 1891 through 1922. He built 5 to 15 schools a year, including Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, Morris High School in the Bronx and innumerable ''P.S.'' schools like the one I attended, Public School 130 on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn -- a splendid exemplar of Snyder's talents on a generous site of playground and landscaped garden. One of his most notable schools, DeWitt Clinton High School, built in 1906 on Manhattan's Tenth Avenue between 58th and 59th Streets, now serves as John Jay College of Criminal Justice, proving the enduring value of his vision.
But Snyder was at his most ingenious on the tight sites where he developed an approach that other cities studied and emulated. Inspired by Parisian townhouses, he created a school plan in the shape of the letter ''H'' that not only provided classrooms with light and fresh air, but also allowed the city to build on relatively inexpensive and quiet midblock sites, rather than corner lots. Under Snyder's direction, buildings adjacent to the schools were often purchased and pulled down to provide more light and air as well as room for fire stairs and outdoor play spaces. Snyder also introduced steel construction and specialized facilities, like laboratories, auditoriums and gymnasiums.
Snyder's schools were beautiful. Their enormous double-hung windows became a trademark, but Snyder did not straitjacket himself stylistically: he made brilliant use of many architectural vocabularies, especially interpretations of Dutch and English colonial styles that embodied references to local history. Inside his schools were art -- murals, sculptural details and stained glass panels -- and fine woodwork, tile and even marble. These were people's palaces, not factories for learning. Those that remain should be returned to glory.
Two of Snyder's gems are threatened with demolition now -- both of them completed in 1899 in the Collegiate Gothic style favored by many universities. (These humble neighborhood schools were seen as steppingstones to the higher seats of learning, whether Yale and Princeton or the grand new City College.) At one school, Public School 31, in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx, towers and gable roofs rise above a surrounding low-lying neighborhood. At the other, Public School 109, in East Harlem, a street-facing courtyard serves as an inviting, gracious entrance and a cupola functions as a beacon in a neighborhood of humdrum buildings.
These schools are as important to their neighborhoods and to the city as any former mansion on the Upper East Side. These are landmarks, imposing but not overwhelming representations of a city's commitment to quality education that give their predominantly poor neighborhoods pride and a sense of place. These are the everyday masterpieces of a talented, historically overlooked architect who devoted himself to the public. Here is architecture in the service of democracy.
I have no quarrel with the new; I only quarrel with the senseless destruction of the old. Where appropriate, imaginative new buildings and additions must be encouraged, but in established neighborhoods, where great old school buildings remain, begging to be reborn, let us get on with the job. If we have learned anything in the 36 years since we destroyed Pennsylvania Station, it should be that examples of New York's past civic architecture that were models of artistic and pragmatic excellence must not be torn down.
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