Thursday, April 19, 2012

The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen Bldg -- No. 20 West 44th Street

photo by Alice Lum

The trustees of the Berkeley School for Boys gambled, perhaps, on their choice of sites for the new school building in 1890.  The exclusive boys’ preparatory school had already moved once from its original structure on Madison Avenue and now it chose four lots on the stable-filled block of West 44th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

Although the site was conveniently near the mansions of Fifth Avenue, the block was still casually referred to as “Stable Street” because of the two- and three-story carriage houses that lined it.  Further down the block was the Sixth Avenue Railroad Depot, making the particular street even more questionable for a respectable prep school.

Yet within only a few years the stables would disappear one by one, replaced by elegant bachelor residence hotels and the most exclusive men’s clubs of the city; among them the New York Yacht Club, the St. Nicholas Club and the Harvard Club.  The gamble paid off.

The Berkeley School was founded by John S. White and opened on September 23, 1880.  The school prepared boys from wealthy families “for the leading universities,” stressing both modern and classical education.  The Sun’s Guide to New York noted “The courses embrace classical and English branches, modern languages, natural philosophy and natural history.”  

White put great emphasis on military protocol and drills, as well, and today we would no doubt refer to the Berkeley as a military academy.  The Sun’s Guide said that “The plan of the school includes military training, gymnastic exercises and out-door sports.  The pupils vary in age between 10 and 20 years and wear a school uniform.”  It assured that “among all the private schools for boys, [it] enjoys the widest reputation and patronage.”

Architects Lamb & Rich, more commonly known for their residential buildings, were commissioned for the project.    The cornerstone was laid on June 30, 1890 “without special ceremonies,” according to The New York Times.  The commander of the school’s battalion, Colonel Frederick R. Franklin, had recently died and celebration seemed “unwise.”    The newspaper predicted that “The building…will be the finest scholastic building in America.” 

In reporting the event, The Times mentioned that the school had just received an impressive honor.  “The highest award given at the Paris Exposition to any boys’ school, outside of France, was a bronze metal awarded to the Berkeley School for its exhibit; consisting of representative work in drawing by the different classes, in modeling and relief-map making, together with photographs of the various classes and rooms.”

The resulting structure, costing $250,000 and completed in 1891, stretched from No. 18 through 24 West 44th Street.  It was a handsome four-story school above a high basement.   A dramatic, split staircase rose to the rusticated first floor above street level.   Above the central windows of the third floor, a long frieze copied a portion of the Parthenon frieze, taken from casts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The architects blended yellow Roman brick, terra cotta and Indiana limestone to create an impressive presence.  It was all capped by an ornate cornice with a central parapet.

On May 30, 1891 The Sun printed a sketch of the new building with its grand split staircase to the first floor and the original cornice and parapet (copyright expired)

Inside were no-nonsense facilities designed for learning and drilling.  The classrooms were identical, 30 by 22 feet “with single desks, having broad aisles on the sides and between each two rows.”  The dining hall and kitchen were on the fourth floor; offices, library and reception rooms were on the first.  The fourth floor also held the dormitories for boarding students, two masters and “the lady resident.”

“The equipment of this school is, beyond all doubt, the best in every department possessed by any private teaching institution in this State,”  said The Sun.  “Excellent laboratories are provided for practical chemical and physical work.”

The terra cotta frieze above the third floor was a copy of the frieze of the Parthenon -- photo by Alice Lum

But it was the armory that stood out.  The Sun reported that it “is walled with plain brick, without ornamentation.  Lockers for the various companies surround the sides.”   Situated on the ground floor, the armory rose “one and a half stories high,” according to the newspaper.  “A span of glass 55 feet wide covers a portion of the armory…This hall is amply lighted by its glass roof by day, and at night is made brilliant by rows of gaslights.”  The New York Times added that the armory was 100 feet wide and 85 feet long, “making a larger armory than that of the Seventy-first Regiment.”

The fifth floor covered only half of the building to accommodate an outdoor area for baseball practice.  Parents of the 300 enrolled students paid annual fees that varied from $350 for the day student to $1000 for the “advanced resident student.”

Leasing the massive armory was a source of extra income for the school.  Immediately the Berkeley Ladies’ Athletic Club developed which held its Winter lawn-tennis tournaments here.  The Evening Badminton Club played here, as well, and the large space was available for other assemblies.  In December 1892 it was the scene of a reception for Columbia, Harvard, Yale and Princeton students before they moved upstairs for a rousing chess tournament.

On Saturday May 13, 1893 scandal arrived in the form of “vile epithets and profanity.”  Berkeley’s chief rival was the Cutler School at 18 West 43rd Street and on that day the two schools had participated in athletic games at the Berkeley Oval, Berkeley’s athletic field north of the city.  The Evening World reported that “Both institutions are preparatory schools, principally for rich men’s sons, and there has been bitterness between them for several years.”

After the games, John White later told reporters, “the Cutler boys abused his boys and insulted the professors and ladies in the party.”  The next morning passersby were shocked by painted vulgarities in front of the Berkeley School, on the sidewalk in front of Dr. White’s home, and on “fences and posts for a block or two on each side of the avenue.”

To Victorian New Yorkers it was appalling and the thought that well-bred sons of society families had committed the act was unthinkable.   Justice from the hand of Professor Cutler, whose school’s reputation had been sullied, came fast and severe.    On May 16 The Times reported that twelve Cutler boys had been suspended.  “They confessed that they were the perpetrators of the outrage, and further confessed that they had daubed Dr. White’s front stoop at 8 East Forty-fourth Street with paint, and had painted vile and profane expressions over the sidewalk in front of his house, and daubed the front stoops of his neighbors.”

The boys could only say they were caught up in the excitement of their victory over Berkeley.  The Times further detailed their “bad conduct.”  “On their way down from the Oval Saturday afternoon, the Cutler boys became hilarious in the train, it is said, and beat the little boys of the Berkeley School and insulted Dr. White.”

The innocent Cutler students were made to issue a set of resolutions condemning the work of the suspended pupils and expressing their deep regret at the mischief.  The resolution was then presented to John White.  The Cutler boys were instructed to tell no one who the offending parties were because, as Professor Cutler said, “it would not be justice to their parents.”

It was military drill, as much as academic and athletic accomplishment, of which the Berkeley students were proud.  On April 10, 1897 The Sun reported on Berkeley’s participation in the 17th Annual Price Drill at the Ninth Regiment Armory.  “With their band playing, colors flying, and headed by a youthful drum major who could have put Sousa to sleep, the boys of the Berkeley School Corps, 200 strong, walked right into the hearts of the spectators…The armory floor and galleries were filled to overflowing with the relatives and friends of the youthful soldiers, while a thousand of New York’s sweetest maidens waved their handkerchiefs and showered applause on the lilliputian army as they strode by.”

In 1900, only nine years after building the facility, the Berkeley School moved to Madison Avenue and 49th Street.  The building was purchased by The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen from Columbia University in trade for three other properties “at no cash outlay to the Society.”

Carved white marble forms a sweeping staircase -- photo courtesy of C. Russell

The society was founded in 1785, but as The New York Tribune pointed out in 1900, “Among the old New-York institutions there is probably none so little known to the general public as the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen.”  The society was founded, according to the act of incorporation in 1792, “for the laudable purpose of protecting and supporting such of their brethren as by sickness or accident may stand in need of assistance, and for the relief of the widows and orphans of those who may die leaving little or no property for their support.”

By now its purpose had broadened.  As well as providing help, mostly to widows and orphans of tradesmen, it ran a free school.  Originally intended to teach a trade to the children of indigent or deceased members, the school eventually admitted other children who paid a modest tuition.   Which students received free instruction and which ones paid was always a well-kept secret.

A heavy bronze plaque of the Society's logo is affixed to the vermiculated limestone base -- photo by Alice Lum

The Society held its official opening on January 3, 1900.  A substantial financial gift from member Andrew Carnegie paid for the renovations.  The Berkeley School’s cavernous armory had been transformed into the society’s library.  “It is lighted by an immense skylight and an elaborate arrangement of electric lamps,” reported The Times.  On the second floor were an assembly room, executive offices and “members’ apartments.”  The original cornerstone of the first mechanics’ hall was placed in the wall on this level.  The upper floors were dedicated to laboratories, recitation rooms, and studios for classes in “modeling, cabinet decoration, architectural, free hand, and mechanical drawing, and as accommodations for the stenographic and typewriting classes.”

The Society's symbol, an arm and hammer, hang above a staircase -- photo courtesy C. Russell

In 1903 Carnegie, who was impressed by the society’s work with underprivileged boys (he said “It is a wonderful institution, doing more good with a small sum of money than any I know of”), gave another $250,000 to enlarge the building.  Architect Ralph Samuel Townsend was commissioned to design the renovations.

The proud executive committee of the Society poses as the new headquarters is opened -- New York Tribune January 14, 1900 (copyright expired)

Townsend sympathetically worked with Lamb & Rich’s original design, adding two wings to the rear, removing the top floor and adding three new stories.  Elaborate moldings, terra cotta framings and Ionic columns were deftly incorporated into the design so the resulting extension of the structure is seamless.

Young men are instructed in ornamental relief in the newly renovated building -- New York Tribune, January 14, 1900 (copyright expired)

By May 6, 1908 Andrew Carnegie had given a total of $527,000 to the Society and in appreciation a bronze bust by sculptor J. Massey Rhind was placed in the foyer.   At the time of the unveiling 1,655 men were being instructed in the technical trades.  The Directory of Social and Health Agencies of New York City listed the free courses available.  “Freehand Cast, and Ornamental Drawing, Elementary and Advanced, in Mechanical and Architectural Drawing, Mathematics, and Clay Modelling [sic], also classes in Physics and Industrial Electricity, thus materially assisting them in their daily vocations.”

Sadly, in May 1917 44th Street was widened, necessitating the removal of the grand stone stairs.  The basement level now became the first floor and the six-story building “with basement” was suddenly a seven-story building on official documents.

With the removal of the staircase, the original entrance door became an arched stained glass window above what had been the basement entrance -- photo by Alice Lum

The Society continues on in the building, over a century after moving in.   A small museum, including a rare collection of locks, the extensive library and the evening classes are here in a building little changed since the removal of the outside steps.

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  1. Have passed by this many time and never knew what it was! Thanks.

  2. Hi Tom,
    you write, "The building was purchased by The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen from Columbia University in trade for three other properties 'at no cash outlay to the Society." What is the relationship between the General society and Columbia here? Did the property transfer to Columbia after the Berkeley moved north?

    1. Columbia acquired the property while the Berkeley School was still there. The Madison Avenue parcel on which the new Berkeley School was erected was also Columbia-owned property.