Monday, September 28, 2015

The Lost P.S. 70 -- 207 E. 75th Street

By 1920 fire escapes zig-zagged down the Victorian facade -- photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
In the years after the end of the Civil War the Upper East Side saw rapid development.  While rows of handsome brownstones were erected along the blocks closer to Central Park; the area nearer the East River filled with immigrant families working in the breweries and cigar factories there.  The swelling population required civic structures—fire houses, police stations, churches and schools.

In 1874 three plots of land were purchased by the Board of Education on East 75th Street, between Second and Third Avenues and a year later it added a fourth, “making the entire plot one hundred feet front,” as recorded in the Board’s 1875 Annual Report.

Nearly two decades later architect Charles B. J. Snyder would take the reins as Superintendent of School Buildings and turn traditional school design on its head.  He focused on fire protection, fresh air, proper lighting and classroom size.  But that was almost 20 years away.

Other than style details, there was little difference between the yellow brick and brownstone school house that rose on East 75th Street and the buildings that had been erected for the purpose since the 1850s.   Ventilation, sunlight, and fire-proof materials were of little consideration to the architect.

A main entrance sat within a central section with a tower-like fifth floor with brick corbelling and an eye-catching circular opening.  Below it was a commanding two-story arched opening.
But the main entrance to Grammar School 70 was not for pupils.  At the farthest ends of the building were double-doored entrances—one for girls and one for boys.  This was, after all, 1876.

In 1886 19-year old teacher Kate Macdona was promoted from the Primary Department of School 77 to the Grammar Department of School 70.  A month after the school season began she had problems.  When James Moloney acted up one day early in October, she sent him to his seat with a verbal reprimand.

Two other pupils, James and William Foley, ran home and told their father--a personal friend of Principal George White--that Miss Macdona had used foul language.  John  Foley soon told White of Kate’s use of “indecent language in the presence of the school children.”

According to The Sun, White instructed Kate that “the young teacher would have to be more circumspect in the future.”  She demanded to know what the objectionable language was; but the principal felt no more discussion was necessary.  Refusing to back down, the stalwart girl demanded an investigation. 

Louis M. Hornthal, Congressman Dowdney and Isaac P. Chambers of the Board of Trustees of the 19th Ward questioned each of the 50 boy pupils of the school.  Miss Macdona was exonerated and James and his brother were suspended from school for telling an untruth.

But the boys’ father would not take the ruling lying down.  He served an injunction on Chairman Chambers, restraining the trustees from suspending his sons.  What had seemed a trivial incident had become a messy and very public case.  It was taken to court and on November 28, 1886 The Sun reported that Kate Macdona “has been made ill by her trouble with the Foley boys.”

The matter seemed out of control.  On March 24, 1887, after Judge Andrews of the Supreme Court, ordered that the boys be reinstated in school, John Foley “marched triumphantly” into Grammar School 70 with his sons and a “procession” of supporters, as described by The Sun.  He interrupted Mr. White’s class and announced that the district trustees were “too ignorant to know their duty.”

Nearly a year after it started the matter which The Sun called “John Foley’s Great Boy Case” was finally put to rest.  On November 21, 1887 Judge Andrews ruled that the Foley boys had “done nothing contrary to the rules of the Board of Education.”   Nevertheless, the overwhelming testimony of the other boys supported Kate.

The population of the Upper East Side continued to swell and in 1890 Grammar School 70 received an annex.  It was a positive note for a school that was about to find itself in the courts and the newspapers once again.

On May 28, 1892 The Sun reported that Mrs. Louise M. Galligan, principal of the Primary Department, was under charges “preferred by the trustees, of falsifying pay rolls, cruelty to teachers, incompetency, and conduct unbecoming a lady.”  The 30-year veteran educator had been charged by “a majority of the forty-three teachers under her.”  She had been tried on similar charges in 1878, but had retained her position.

A hearing was held on April 15 during which the trustees presented 300 pages of testimony supporting their conclusion that “she is no longer fit to teach.”  The Sun described Mrs. Galligan as “a large, gray-haired woman, about 55 years old.”  She testified on her own behalf and emphatically denied the charges, which included “she was continually nagging the teachers under her and rendered their lives miserable.”

Two months later, on June 16, 1892, The Evening World reported “Mrs. Louise M. Galligan is no longer Principal of the primary department of Grammar School No. 70, in East Seventy-fifth street.”  The newspaper said she was dismissed on charges “of inefficiency, incompetency, neglect of duty, conduct unbecoming a principal and teacher and falsifying the time-record book for teachers.”

The headstrong Louise M. Galligan, however, would not go down easily.  On August 1 The Evening World reported that she had sued Trustee Louis M. Hornthal for $50,000 for libel and slander.  The court instructed Hornthal to “make the charges more specific” in Galligan’s dismissal.

When her slander suit failed, she pressed on, now headed to Supreme Court.  On November 19, 1894, more than two years after her dismissal, she entered the courtroom where she sought $25,000 in damages against the school trustees.  The Evening World said “Miss Galligan came into court early, accompanied by two friends, They seated themselves in a triangle in a convenient spot and watched the door.  Miss Galligan is plump, and if she has almost reached the three-score limit she has made a friend of Father Time, for her brown hair has scarcely been touched.”

Louise Galligan, much to the astonishment of the court, acted as her own lawyer, telling the jury “I have not the means to employ counsel, but I will try to show you how I incurred the ill-will of these defendants.”  She had no witnesses (while the defense had “three benches” of teachers ready to testify) and rambled on until the judge stopped her.

“After her continuing at some length the Court interrupted Miss Galligan by suggesting that she had not stated in her complaints what the alleged libel was.  A considerable discussion of an amusing nature followed, and then the Court took an intermission until 2 o’clock to give the plaintiff an opportunity to rearrange her papers, adding the suggestion that she should have counsel.”

The case did not end happily for Louise Galligan.

In the meantime, things went on as usual in Grammar School No. 70.  On Flag Day 1893 George White, still principal, was presented by the children with an immense American flag 12 feet wide by 20 feet long.  The Evening World said on June 14, “While presenting this ‘emblem of our individual liberty and collective greatness,’ as the thirteen-year old presentation orator, Patrick McGrath, expressed it, the school saluted the flag, and at the close repeated a pledge to it.”

By 1898, when the school was improved “by painting the rooms, etc.,” as mentioned in the Minutes of the Committee on Buildings that year, it had become Public School 70.   George White remained on as principal; and the size of the student body was reflected the following year in its 82-member graduating class.

By 1902 when inspectors went through the 30-year old building it was showing its age.  They reported that “Three classes on the main floor of this school are badly lighted, and on dark days are unfit for use without artificial light.”  Students still used outhouses in the rear yard and the Board of Education  announced plans to demolish the old buildings behind the school, on 76th Street, for “the erection of new waterclosets for the boys.”

Young women teaching teen-aged boys was in 1906, as it is today, a sometimes rocky road.  John Smith, 13 years old, found himself in Children's Court on November 21 that year because he had become helplessly smitten with his teacher.

Earlier Patrolman Fraizer was approached by the school janitor, William Adams, who was dragging young Smith by his arm.  Adams wanted the boy arrested.  When the officer asked what the charge was, he was told disorderly conduct.

“He’s been writing love letters to his teacher and won’t stop, though he has been warned enough.”  The New York Times added “It was said that he had not only written love letters to the teacher, but had made the unpardonable mistake of reading them to others before sending them.”

The Sun, on November 22, 1906, said the hoped-for affair had begun during the previous school season.  “When he saw the black haired, dark eyed young woman it was a case of love at first sight.” 

But she was not his teacher; she taught a grade above his.  “Previous to that he had never been particular about his studies; he didn’t care whether or not he was left back.  But the day the new teacher entered the fourth primary Johnny changed.  He made up his mind that he would be promoted to her class, even if he had to crib at the examinations.  His love for the new teacher inspired him and spurred him on, and at the end of the term he headed the class in every subject.”

When school started again in the fall of 1906, John Smith began writing his love letters, one of which The Sun reprinted.  

My deerest luv: This is a luv leter frum 1 of yur pupels what luvs you.  I always luved you sinse the day I first seen you.  You have the most butiful eys I ever seen and I always think about you the hole day and nite.  I wud like to tel you how mutch I luv you but I am afrade you wud get mad at me.  I cant help luving you all the time.  Your luving pupel

The unnamed teacher was, at first, amused.  But when the letters appeared daily she became concerned.   When Johnny’s jilted girlfriend told on him to the teacher, the jig was up.  Although he promised the teacher he would stop writing love letters, he could not stop himself.

“He promised not to write any more, but he just had to pour forth the fire of his love burdened heart, and he continued writing the letters,” said The Sun.  The teacher appealed to the principal and Johnny was disciplined by having to eat lunch standing up for two days.  But he continued with the letters.

A conference was held which was attended by the principal, the head of the primary department, and Miss Dark Eyes [the code name concocted by The Sun to conceal her identity], and it was decided to have Johnny arrested.”

Johnny Smith appeared before the judge and his crimes were laid out in detail.  The teacher failed to appear and after some time the court was compelled to discharge the boy; but only after extracting a promise that he would stop writing.

“I’ll love her just the same; all right, all right,” the boy said to reporters as he walked out, ‘even if I kin not write to her.”

Johnny Smith was, in fact, somewhat fortunate.  Other teachers in Public School 70 were less lenient.  Robert Holcomb's class was making pencil cases on Friday June 1 that same year.  He had an after-school job at a laundry taking orders, so when 3:30 came he was eager to leave.  But his teacher, Max Schellitzer, instructed the boys to stay until he had examined the cases.

After Robert’s was collected, he asked Schellitzer if he could leave.  “The teacher told him to stay until he was told he might go,” said the New-York Tribune later.  The antsy boy waited 15 minutes then started for the door without Schellitzer's permission.  It was a bad idea.

“He says that Mr. Schellitzer caught him first by both arms and then by the throat and threw him against a desk with such force that he became unconscious,” said the Tribune the following week.  “Mr Schellitzer said, when seen yesterday, that he boy kicked and struck him, and that in the scuffle which ensued he fainted and fell against a desk.”

One way or the other, the 12-year old boy was unresponsive and his mother, Elizabeth Holcomb, was sent for and an ambulance called.  Police arrived and would have arrested Schellitzer had Mrs. Holcomb, a widow, not intervened.  She later explained she did not want to get the teacher in trouble.

Robert remained unconscious for hours and doctors said “that he may have sustained an injury to his brain.”  At Presbyterian Hospital he was found to have bruises “on his arms and around his throat.”  It was only through the urging of neighbors that Elizabeth Holcomb pursued the matter in court.  Somewhat amazingly, Principal George White told the judge that “though he was not present at the time he believed Mr. Schellitzer’s version of the case to be correct.”

By 1919 the neighborhood had substantially changed from the gritty environment of 1876.  Now the independent Public Education Association noted that the school was located “a block or so east of the wealthiest residential section in the world.”  The school building, however, was far from upscale.  The Association called it “an ancient fire trap” and said “It is doubtful if such conditions would be tolerated under our factory laws in even the poorest sweatshop!”

The Associations report, released in April 1919, complained that 2,000 children were crowded into class rooms with seating for scarcely 1,000.  Ventilation, lighting and heating were unacceptable.  “In one room on the top floor, which has no windows and is completely surrounded by other rooms, there is only one aisle in the middle of the room…There mere thought of fire under such conditions is enough to make one’s blood run cold.”

Abraham Smith, now principal, chimed in saying “The building is unfit for human habitation.”  The Evening World quoted the Association’s report as saying “toilet conditions are loathsome and unspeakable.”

The Board of Education complained that the Association had “picked out [as its example] one school which the board has planned to tear down for two years so that a new one may be erected.”

The Board’s intentions to raze the 19th century school building did not come to pass, and in 1921 Howard Nudd of Public Education Association was still pointing out Public School 70.  “An example of the Board of Estimate’s failure to provide sufficient funds for school maintenance, he related, was the general condition of Public School 70, situated in East Seventy-fifth Street.  This building had been ‘repaired,’ he said, by painting the building and its flag pole.”

The antiquated but picturesque Victorian structure survived another two decades before being demolished.  The replacement school faces 76th Street and the site of the old Public School 70 is now its playground.

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