New York City’s Cathedrals of Learning
Williamsburg, Brooklyn, at night in the rain might be romantic with the right person and the right moment, but for me one recent evening it was just cold and miserable, even though I was in a good mood after having my arm punctured with a second Covid vaccine shot. Exiting the public health clinic there, I was determined to find somewhere interesting to eat. It was an absurd mission, because I was in the Hasidic part of Williamsburg, and no hip eaterie lay within a mile. And my shoes (and thus my feet) were already soaking wet from walking to the clinic from the subway.
But I was determined. So I trudged down Kent Avenue, aiming for Myrtle Avenue, where Google maps told me I would eventually reach some promising restaurants and bars. The rain was really coming down, soaking through not only my shoes but my newly waterproofed old raincoat, and working its way around my cheap umbrella. Maybe this was a bad idea.
Suddenly, I felt my head drawn to the right, as if an unseen hand had grasped my jaw and gently pulled. It was a big, old public school, casually magnificent; Gothic style, I believe, with stone arches and little pavilions on the front. It looked like a cathedral. The sense of this was so strong, I looked hard to make sure it wasn’t a cathedral. What I was experiencing was the Benjamin Franklin School, P.S. 157, at 850 Kent Avenue.
These old schools, some more than a century old, are pretty common in New York City and other older cities around the U.S. In my native Norfolk, Virginia, I remember Maury High School and Blair Middle School, which my father attended. While the styles differ, they are generally multistory and have a presence and sense of place that newer schools don’t match, even when the new ones are sited properly in an urban setting.
I say this even though I love modern and contemporary architecture. I’m a big fan of Frank Gehry, whom I’ve written about. I even love—aesthetically, from a distance—the new supertall condos going up in Midtown. In the past, I’ve also sharply criticized the design philosophies of New Urbanism and neo-traditionalism, although not on stylistic grounds. But for all of modern and contemporary architecture’s merits, historic buildings more often achieve something that newer architecture does not: presence, grace, and communication.
When was the last time you walked by a new school building that had a tenth of the power of an old one? The newer schools in Brooklyn, and in other cities I’ve been, seem to plead to not give offense. Their highest aim is to be “not terrible,” not to proclaim that here stands a cornerstone of American democracy (as well as the economy), the public school.
Back in my warm Park Slope apartment, I posted something on Facebook about my moment with P.S. 157, including a picture I snapped in the rain. It was telling how many comments I got, including some stories: “When we moved from Queens (P.S. 206) to the suburbs, I had come from a school building with heft—big beautiful windows, high ceilings and wide stone staircases,” said Natalia de Cuba Romero, an old journalism classmate of mine. “It gave majesty to the pursuit of education. When we saw our new squat, one-story, pale building with plain metal windows. … I was soooo deflated. And my sinking feeling about what lay ahead was prescient.”
There are more than 1,500 public schools in New York City, so I certainly haven’t seen all of them. But I can’t think of a newer one that has the presence and dialogue that the best of the older ones achieve.
There are more than 1,500 public schools throughout New York City, so I certainly haven’t seen all of them. But I can’t think of a newer one that has the presence and dialogue that the best of the older ones achieve. The esteemed Stuyvesant High School manages to achieve some presence in its new building by Battery Park City, but mostly because it wears some Postmodern columns on its front, a tip of the hat to its old Paladian style building east of Union Square.
Going all out on contemporary style, there is The High School for Construction Trades, Engineering & Architecture, in Queens. Just judging from pictures, I like it for its daring. But that’s a different sort of communication than I get from P.S. 157. During his tenure, Mayor Michael Bloomberg built a lot of new buildings (although no schools), particularly libraries, under his Design and Construction Excellence program. I’m a fan of the program.
I don’t think it’s a contradiction to like both contemporary and historic architecture. The difficulty is teasing out what each does well, and whether historic architecture can teach us anything. I don’t think Postmodern architecture, where you have a pastiche of old styles, has any future. I could even hear someone saying schools shouldn’t look like cathedrals, because they aren’t religious settings.
One problem is that when much of architecture abandoned historical styles, for a variety of reasons, it lost a lot of its vocabulary with the average person. In a way, it is a bit grandiose to make a public school look like a cathedral, but that does communicate pretty darn fast that “Here Is Something Important.”
It would be interesting to learn how much P.S. 157 cost when built in the early 1900s, and how that compares with today. It certainly looks expensive, with all of its ornamentation, nooks, and crannies. C.B.J. Snyder, staff architect for New York City’s public schools, designed P.S. 157 as he did many others of the city’s public schools of that period. It opened in 1907 and was renovated in the early 2000s, which helps explain why it looked nice to me now, even in the rain. Snyder, who was superintendent of School Buildings for the New York City Board of Education between 1891 and 1923, is a legend of sorts, it turns out. During his tenure, he was responsible for the design and construction of more than 350 elementary, middle, and high schools in the five boroughs. How’s that for making your mark?
A reviewer in School Construction News, a trade publication, said the building was lucky to have escaped the modernization that occurred in the postwar decades that devalued so many older school buildings. P.S. 157 has a lot of nice touches that I couldn’t see clearly in the rain, including 40 incredibly cool-looking hand-carved owls perched on the roof. You can see them in one of these pictures if you zoom in. It’s perhaps telling that despite the building’s magnificence, no mention of it or its history is made on the school’s website, that I could find. It is apparently not worth mentioning.
Perhaps the lesson here is that each era has its own pleasures and strengths. We couldn’t build P.S. 157 today, even if we wanted to. The trades are mostly gone, as are I bet all sorts of systems that made such a building possible. But we can appreciate and learn from it, and think about what we have, and what we have lost.
We need to keep working to put magnificence into all our public works, not just schools. It’s true that achieving some sort of language is hard, and whatever words are chosen in brick, glass, or steel, in color, art, and textures, probably won’t reach everyone. But the trying is what’s important, as is the acceptance that, to quote the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan yet again, “the quality of public design … is not an efflorescence of elite aestheticism; it is the bone and muscle of democracy.”
Featured image: P.S. 157, Brooklyn, via Inside Schools.