Public schools as well as many charter and private schools started the 2016-17 year this Thursday, ending the summer season as children return from summer camps, trips abroad or other activities to their classrooms. The first day of school is a special day in any community. In New York, it also presents an opportunity to reflect on the architecture of New York’s public schools.
Like churches (or other houses of worship), public library buildings, and other public building, schools are often neighborhood landmarks that remain as while neighborhoods change around them. Though sometimes the school moves to a new building and a new school moves in, the building itself most often remains standing, and most often as a public school. A few have been converted to other purposes, such as the MOMA PS1 in Queens, a school turned art gallery. In any case they stand is powerful anchors of a community.
School buildings built since the 1960s and 70s have been generally very modern in design and very pragmatic, on focusing on their utilitarian value to the students and educators. But in the past schools were built to be impressive landmarks, and many in fact are now protected by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
The oldest surviving school building in the city is the 1787 Federal-style Erasmus Hall Academy in Brooklyn, which is currently not in use (the building is on the Erasmus Hall Educational Campus which is still a functioning high school). Erasmus Hall was originally a private school but absolved into the New York public school system in 1896.
Public schools in New York were built at a rapid pace during the guided age. in the 1880s-1920s. At the time New York’s population was growing rapidly due to immigrants. The public schools were seen as powerful tools to help immigrant children assimilate and shield them from poverty they often lived in. They were built as large structures with large windows (a contrast to the dark crowded tenements where many lived). A prominent example is the Al Smith school PS 1 built in the heart of the Lower East Side tenement district. In those days schools were meant to provide a respite for impoverished children. They were also meant to assimilate the children–requiring English only and forcing children to eat American-style lunches rather than ethnic immigrant fare.
During this period public schools were largely the work of the architect C P J Snyder, who was the Superintendent of School Buildings from 1891-1922. His influence on the city was immense–350 schools were built under his supervision, many which are still in use. Snyder combined beautiful architectural styles of the time such Gothic Revival, Romanesque and Neoclassical but also made them pragmatic and utilitarian buildings. Forced to build with limited budgets, Snyder included many cost saving methods such as using the same design for several schools.