|photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
Following the Civil War the Upper East Side high in the 90s was sparsely developed with small houses and gritty businesses like breweries and cigar factories. But by the 1880s the streets were lined with rowhouses and the city was playing catch-up in terms of providing schools.
Around 1891 an old tobacco factory at 99th Street and 2nd Avenue was leased for use as Public School No. 109. The less-than-ideal conditions would serve for a decade before a proper school building was opened.
In 1891 Charles B. J. Snyder was appointed Superintendent of School Buildings—a title which made him official architect of the New York City Board of Education. The innovative and talented Snyder was not merely an architect; he was also an mechanical and architectural engineer. He was as concerned with the students’ quality of life as he was with the architectural design of the buildings.
Snyder intended to create buildings that would uplift the students—monumental, dignified structures that fostered pride and, consequently (at least in theory), produced better citizens. He drew from a broad swatch of historical inspiration; Gothic, Flemish Revival, and Renaissance among them.
Because the schools were often mid-block, buildings on either side blocked air and sunlight to the majority of rooms. Snyder was concerned with ample ventilation and light, as well as safety issues like fire protection and sanitation.
To address the sunlight and air, he devised the “H-Plan” of construction. By extending wings on either side of the main section, the number of windows was greatly increased and safe play areas were created between the arms away from the street.
In 1898 Snyder designed a permanent building for Public School 109. The five-story school was designed in the Collegiate Gothic Revival style. Gargoyles, spiky copper cupolas and gray terra cotta decorated the granite, limestone and beige brick structure. Above it all a steep pitched roof was covered in green slate.
|Flying gargoyles and other ornaments distinguished the school building.|
Finally on April 20, 1901 the school on 99th Street just east of Third Avenue was finished. The New York Times commented favorably on the modern H-design. “Large open courts are afforded by this means upon either front adjacent to the street, for play and recreation. The walls of the wings upon the party lines are without openings of any kind, thus shutting out all nuisances from adjoining property, the light and air for the classrooms being obtained from the large courts and from the streets.”
Snyder turned to a steel skeleton construction, another innovative concept for school buildings. The first floor was divided into boys’ and girls’ playrooms and “furnished with abundant facilities for obtaining drinking water.” There were a total of 48 classrooms on the upper floors, outside of which were the “easily accessible” wardrobes. Snyder’s attention to health and sanitation was reflected even here. The coat closets were “also thoroughly ventilated, each having a coil of steam pipe placed therein to dry the clothing when damp and to maintain at all times a circulation of air,” reported The Times.
The students were, for the most part, from low-income families. In 1915, during the Evening World’s campaign for the “penny lunch,” a teacher described for a reporter the plight of the average pupil. “He says the average parents of his pupils are very poor. Quite a few of them are very ignorant as to what foods are nourishing for the children.
“Some are peddlers, and, as their work keeps them away from their homes all day, they give their children a few pennies daily with which to purchase food which often is not nourishing. A great number of children have no fathers, their mothers going out to work daily, which causes the same condition, and in a great many cases both parents are employed at very low wages during the day.”
|In 1940 PS 109 stood among tenement buildings along 99th Street -- photo NYPL Collection|
The impressive Gothic school building served the East Harlem neighborhood until 1996 when it was closed due to extensive water damage and years of structural decay. Parents of reassigned students were told that the school would be repaired; however when officials decided that the $4 million earmarked for the renovations was not enough to cover the necessary repairs, the building was slated for demolition.
Local groups rallied to save the impressive if careworn old building even as demolition crews began removing the slate roof and gargoyles. The School Construction Authority approved the selling of the architectural details to a salvage firm which intended to resell them for as much as $100,000.
|Looking rather like a haunted house, the structure is being nurtured back to life .|
But the absence of the slate roof and unprotected window openings allowed the rain and vandals to enter. The building quickly began deteriorating. It was what Gwen Goodwin told Seth Kugel of The New York Times “demolition by neglect.”
|The copper spires and lacy dormer decorations have been removed.|
The group first investigated P.S. 109 in 2004 and by 2005 had chosen it for the $22.6 million project. Currently underway, the renovation will provide affordable housing for 64 artists and their families. Much of the architectural detailing, like the terra cotta panels, were still within the building and will be restored to their original spaces.
When completed, P.S. 109—to be called El Barrio’s Artspace—will exemplify the sensitive re-use of an historic and irreplaceable structure.
non-historic photos taken by the author
non-historic photos taken by the author