Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Packard Commercial School Bldg -- 253 Lexington Avenue

photo by Alice Lum

In the 1830s Silas Sadler Packard had “a natural taste for grammar and mathematics, and was always the best penman in school,” said The Penman’s Art Journal decades later.  At the age of 16 he began teaching in his home state of Ohio and in 1848 obtained a position with Bartlett’s Commercial College in Cincinnati.  Packard would always refer to his employer as “the father of the American business college idea.”

He brought that idea to New York City in 1858.  That year Silas Sadler Packard took two rooms in the Cooper Union and opened his commercial school.   Here young men learned the business math, accounting and secretarial skills that prepared them for positions as clerks and related positions.   The educator would go on to write textbooks that would be used across the country.  Among these were “A Complete Course of Business Training,” “The New Packard Commercial Arithmetic,” and “Packard’s Complete Course of Book-Keeping and Correspondence.”

Packard offered co-educational studies, a shocking idea to some -- Scientific American 1880 (copyright expired)
The Packard Commercial School was a success.  In 1863 it moved into enlarged space in the Mortimer Block on Broadway at 22nd Street.  Seven years later it took an entire floor in the Methodist Building eleven blocks to the south; and in 1887 it took over the former building of the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Fourth Avenue and 23rd Street.

The school remained in the building at 4th Avenue and 23rd Street for 23 years.
By the second half of the century things had changed in the business world.   Women were entering the workplace—or at least attempting to.   They faced a prejudice, however, from business owners who viewed the traditional role of working women as servants, milliners and dress makers.  Packard admitted 30 young women to the school, educating them for free.  The Penman’s Art Journal said he did it “for no other purpose than to prove to the business community that he had at command a number of well-trained and efficient women clerks, who were not only able to work, but were willing to do so, and who could readily supplant inefficient office boys and young men, who depended upon, their sex to hold their own, as against women, of whatever qualifications.”

Packard was a brilliant educator.  The business schools of France were founded on his model and in 1893 he was appointed president of the Congress of Business Education of the World’s Fair Congress in Chicago.   He was also an affable administrator, shattering the image of the stern Victorian schoolmaster.

On April 28, 1896 he was honored with a dinner at the exclusive Delmonico’s for his 70th birthday.  The celebration was attended by over 600 former students, teachers and friends.  To show their appreciation he was presented with a loving cup.    Shortly before he had been presented with a bronze bust of himself executive by eminent sculptor J. Q. A. Ward.

When Packard died on October 27, 1898 the school was, as noted in The New York Observer, “in the enviable position it occupies to-day in the front rank of the business schools of the world.”    The New-York Tribune said “He has been called a schoolmaster, professor, lecturer.  None of these titles fit him.  He was a father, in the highest sense, to thousands of young men and women.  He was an inspiration greater even, at times, than the best home influences.  He molded character, and had given impulse toward high ideals, cleanness of conduct and morality in business.”

By 1910 the school had once again outgrown its building.   On June 4, 1910 The New-York Tribune noted that the institution had purchased the house and adjoining stable at the southeast corner of Lexington Avenue and 35th Street.  The Murray Hill neighborhood was still a residential enclave of refined mansions, having so far escaped the commercialization of nearby 5th Avenue.  The newspaper reported that the school “will erect on the site a modern fire-proof building for its own use.”

Architect H. F. Ballantyne was given the commission to design the new structure.  Packard’s widow had bequeathed funds for the school, expressing “the earnest desire” for a “beautiful, modern and perfectly equipped school building.”  Her earnest desires were fulfilled in Ballantyne’s design.

The completed building in 1912 -- Architecture & Building January 1912 (copyright expired)
The new building needed to slip harmoniously into the quiet upscale neighborhood.  The New York Times, on July 30, 1911 described the still-unchanged area.  “From Thirty-fifth to Fortieth Streets evidences of the old time residential elegance of Lexington Avenue are seen at their best.  The only improvement in this district is on the southeast corner of Thirty-fifth Street, where the new Packard Commercial School is nearing completion, an attractive building in a once exclusive section.”

It was completed later that year at a cost of $250,000.  The New York Observer called it “Dignified in appearance and monumental in character, its exterior is consistent with the age and dignity of the institution which it houses, while its classical colonnade and architectural enrichments make it a distinct ornament among the stately structures of old Murray Hill.” 

Brownstone mansions still abut the limestone and brick building in this period postcard view.

Ballantyne described the building in his own words in Architecture and Building in January 1912.  “The style of the building might be described as Georgian, or rather a modern adaptation of that early American style sometimes called Colonial.”  The architect achieved monumentality with soaring brick pilasters along the 35th Street façade that became engaged brick columns on Lexington Avenue.  Great expanses of glass flooded the classrooms with natural light.

The school would garner additional income from the street level stores in the limestone base.   Ballantyne described this level as “treated as a massive arcade, heavily rusticated, and of great depth of reveal, providing ample support for the columns above, and yet giving an abundance of light to the stores.”

Inside students could use either of two elevators or the “wide marble stairways which give access to the class rooms above by marble walled corridors,” said the architect.  By the use of rolling partitions, the classrooms on the third floor could be opened to form a 4,000 square foot lecture hall.

The New York Observer commented on the up-to-date conveniences.  “Filtered drinking water is supplied; hot and cold water are found in the lavatories which are conveniently situated on every floor; a broad exterior fire escape is located at the rear in fact, every requisite for the safety, health and comfort of the students has been provided.”  The ventilation system forced warmed, filtered and humidified air into the classrooms by a motor driven fan.  “A complete system of interior telephones, automatic programme signals, and electric clocks, controlled by one master clock, provides rapid inter-communication and uniform time throughout the building.”

The Packard Commercial School often lured the most esteemed names in the country as commencement speakers.  So it was in May of 1914 when the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Champ Clark, addressed the graduates in Carnegie Hall.  The Speaker touched on a number of issues he felt the students should be aware of in entering the world of business and politics.

Among the assertions the Democrat made were “I like to praise a Republican when I find one who deserves it,” and “Theodore Roosevelt knows a little about more things than any human being I have ever laid eyes on.”

The school advertised its available courses in 1920 -- The Westfield Leader (copyright expired)
By 1954 the Packard Commercial School had closed.   The building caught the eye of Yeshiva University.  At the time there was a defined gender gap in Jewish education; in short women were unable to receive good Jewish education in centrist Orthodox schools.  Using a major donation from the president of Hartz Mountain Products, Max Stern, the Yeshiva established the Stern College for Women—a separate institution for Jewish female students.

It was here that Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik initiated the highly-controversial Talmud lecture for women.   Although the Yeshiva agreed to a school for women, many unbending tradionalists balked against females studying and teaching Talmud.

photo by Alice Lum
Today Stern College remains in the unchanged, monumental building, continuing Silas Packard’s tradition of extending the opportunity of education to women.

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