Thursday, January 5, 2012

Those glorious Snyder school buildings, too many lost, sold or sitting empty

Morris High School in the Br
Mayor Bloomberg’s invitation to his State of the City speech features a photo of the glorious Morris High School building in the Bronx where his address will be given.   Morris High School was designed by the NYC Superintendent of schools, Charles B.J. Snyder, at the turn of the century.  
According to the architectural historian Jean Arrington, Snyder designed and built an astonishing 344 school buildings and 64 additions over about thirty years; a record that puts Bloomberg’s repeated claims of having the most ambitious record of school construction to shame.  
The Wikipedia entry about Snyder says: “Snyder saw school buildings as civic monuments for a better society. He was concerned with health and safety issues in public schools and focused on fire protection, ventilation, lighting, and classroom size.”
Of the Snyder buildings, according to Arrington, about 280 (or two thirds) till stand, and 235 still function as schools. The other 45 are now apartments, condos, senior citizen housing, shelters, artist complexes, health facilities, one hotel, and one church.  Five have sat empty for 20 to 40 years, though one of those has just reopened - PS 90 in Harlem - as mostly high-end condos. The School Construction Authority (SCA) has just demolished one of Snyder's earliest schools in Brooklyn – as it evidently had structural problems, to make room for a larger building.
The former PS 64 in the East Village
Among the Snyder buildings that have been sitting empty for years, at least two have provoked intense controversies: the former PS 64, just east of Tompkins Square in the East Village, which was run by a community group named Charas and renamed  El Bohio Cultural and Community Center, serving as a home for housing activists, artists, theater groups, a bicycle repair shop and more.  It was sold during the Giuliani administration to a developer who, without permission, stripped it of many of its architectural features, despite the fact that the building had been landmarked. More recently, it has been the site of Occupy Wall St. type protests (article, video.)
The former PS 109 in East Harlem
Another Snyder building is the former PS 109, on E. 99 Street in East Harlem, which neighborhood residents and preservationists prevented from being torn down in the 1990’s, and has its own website, devoted to restoring it as a school. Community activist Gwen Goodwin is still leading a battle for the building to be returned to its original use as a school, though several years ago it was sold for one dollar by the Department of Education and is apparently in the process of being converted to artist housing. 
PS 109 was the topic of conversation at the last Panel for Educational Policy meeting , when Patrick Sullivan pointed out how it could be used to provide space for the  Esperanza Preparatory Academy on 109 St., a dual language school that has been given the green light to expand within the space of  the TAG school, the only gifted school in Manhattan that is truly diverse, and whose school is already so overcrowded that its kids eat lunch at 10 AM.  In response, Walcott claimed (falsely) that PS 109's building had been sold before Bloomberg was elected – but it was actually in the city’s capital plan for schools to be repaired and renovated as late as May 2003.
Why it was sold is still not clear. To have such beautiful and spacious school buildings sitting empty – or sold for a dollar – seems criminal, while just ten blocks away, children in one overcrowded school are being pushed aside for the expansion of another school, and at a time when one quarter of all elementary schools had waiting lists for Kindergarten last spring, and nearly half a million NYC children are sitting in buildings that are 100% utilized or more. -- Leonie Haimson

I find a certain amount of irony in the invitation.  It's great to see the picture showing the Morris H.S. building seemingly restored to its former glory and the text making brief reference to its history and to the fact that it is a Snyder school. 
However, Charles B. J. Snyder designed and built more than 300 schools for the NYC public school system from approximately 1890 to 1923, and although Morris was one of his crowning achievements, most were magnificent structures, inside and out, and well worth preserving.  Other internal features of Snyder schools include art rooms, shops, gyms, etc., features he always insisted in putting in -- in a break with the previous school construction of the era. 
What has happened, however, under the watch of several administrations in City Hall and at the Board of Ed./DOE since the 1950's, is that a sickeningly large number of them have been demolished, sold off or allowed to deteriorate so that only a minority of them are still functioning as NYC public schools.   
Take Harlem for example.  (I have this from a Snyder walk I was on which went through Harlem and was led by the wonderful architectural historian/Snyder specialist Jean Arrington).  He built 16 schools in Harlem, including the currently-besieged (by DOE) Wadleigh, then known as Girls' H.S.  Of those 16, eight are still standing, and only three of those are currently serving as public schools.  One other is a senior residence (that's OK), one an adult education center (that's OK), one is now just a shell, one is being converted into private housing (luxury, no doubt) and another has already been converted into condos, with the architectural details lovingly restored and proudly highlighted in the marketing materials for the building. 
Now imagine if even half of the 13 lost Snyder school buildings in Harlem had not passed out of the public school system.  At the very least it's safe to say that with all that additional capacity, when the DOE wanted to shove a charter school into a public school these days it wouldn't result in children losing their libraries, art rooms or gym and cafeteria time. 
The blame, if it were being assessed, would have to go, as I wrote above, to several administrations for not choosing to preserve these gems within the system, and for deciding to defer maintenance.  (My aunt, who was born in 1914, went to Morris, which means she graduated in 1931-32, I'm guessing.  She once told me that she was jealous because my mother, 6 years younger, went to the newly-opened James Monroe H.S. instead.  That would have been about 1934-5.  So if Morris could seem less desirable to a school kid by thirty years after it opened, it indicates that upkeep needed to begin quickly and to be done regularly, and I guess it wasn't.)  As a result, many New Yorkers have been the losers over the decades. 
Somehow I don't imagine that anyone in City Hall was expecting this kind of reaction to the attractive invitation which they sent out for the State of the City.  -- Richard Barr

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