Monday, June 10, 2013

The Lost 1869 Grammar School No. 56 -- No. 351 W. 18th Street

Sketch from "New York and Its Institutions" by John Francis Richmond, 1872 (copyright expired)
In 1853 when the Public School Society of New York City was replaced by the newly-formed Board of Education, Chelsea was an established neighborhood of brick houses, churches and growing industry.   Development had been going on for nearly four decades and the growing population demanded increased educational facilities.

In 1871 when John Francis Richmond wrote his “New York and Its Institutions,” there were ninety school buildings owned by the city as well as numerous rented structures.  Richmond explained that “The old buildings were plain…but many of those recently erected cover several lots of ground, are lofty and elegant structures, with several fire-proof stairways, and all necessary apartments for the complete accommodation of two thousand scholars.”  To illustrate his point he included an etching of Grammar School No. 59 at No. 351 West 18th Street, erected two years earlier.

Richmond chose well for his illustration of an up-to-date facility.   The Chelsea school building was one of the first civic structures in New York City to be designed in the French Second Empire style.   First appearing in Paris in 1852 the architectural style was also known as Napoleon III and quickly became the architectural rage on the continent.

Now, in 1869, it took center stage on West 18th Street as the “female department of School No. 11” was erected.    The new building would be the first public school in New York to employ a central entrance tower, this one topped by a modish curved mansard cap.  Each half of the façade on either side of the entrance was divided into three sections; each segment stepped slightly back from the ends until the central tower thrust dramatically forth.

As the building neared completion the Board of Education made special note of the central tower in its Annual Report of 1868.  “The ‘squat’ appearance that generally accompanies a building of the same breadth of front as this, is here avoided…the bold bringing out of the central tower, making the main entrance a prominent feature, carries the eye upward with pleasant relief.”

The completed edifice would cost $100,000 and was the last word in architectural fashion.  A rusticated base supported three floors of arched windows, paneled pilasters and stone quoins that outlined the tower.  Above, an iron-crested mansard fulfilled the obligations of the Second Empire style.

On July 21, 1869 The New York Times reported on the new structure which was scheduled to open in September with the other schools.  “It is a large building, and will probably accommodate from 1,800 to 2,000 pupils,” said the newspaper.   Three bids had been taken by the Board for furnishing the new school and Robert Paton won the job with a bid of $13,500 (over $208,000 today). 

The New York Times took a moment to editorialize about the steep cost.   “The furnishing means providing desks alone, and, in this view, even the lowest bid, $13,255, seems a pretty good figure.”

September came and went and details delayed the opening.  Finally the four-story schoolhouse opened “with appropriate exercises” on December 23, 1869.   The Times called the building “substantial” and noted that the girls would be under the superintendence “of Miss Sims, who enjoys the reputation of being among the foremost lady teachers of the City.”

The opening address was delivered by the Rev. Dr. Bellows “in an eloquent strain, calling the public schools ‘great seminaries of learning.’”

The first graduation was held three months later on March 11, 1870.  “The large hall of this splendid new building was filled to overflowing with the friends of the class and others interested in the proceedings,” noted The Times.

“The graduating class was a fine looking company of girls, nineteen in number, and their part of the exercises consisted of written compositions and singing.  The compositions were graceful essays, exceedingly well written and delivered with fine taste and spirit.”

Mary Simms was once again complimented by the newspaper.  “The singing was also very pleasing, and the entire exercises reflected great credit on the excellent training received by the girls from the Principal of the school, Miss Mary A. Simms, who is widely known and admired for her superior tact and ability as a teacher.”

Assistant Superintendent Henry Kiddle presented the diplomas and took the opportunity to speak “in the highest terms of the character of the school and the proficiency of this particular class…He also alluded to the fact that this was the newest and finest school building in the City.”

As with all Victorian gatherings of this type, there were several long-winded speeches, however The Times assured that “The whole proceedings were of the pleasantest description, and were listened to with evident interest.”

A stereopticon view captures students of Grammar School No. 56, around 1870.  The girls, many in pinafores, are "assembled for morning exercises." -- photo Library of Congress
In the 1880s what might seem to be a matter-of-fact occurrence today was reason for a spectacle.  So it was on May 15, 1888 when Grammar School No. 56 was the recipient of two new silk American flags.  The delivery of the flags to the school was occasion for “flag presentation exercises.”

The façade of the school was draped “with the national colors” and the assembly hall on the top floor of the building “had been elaborately decorated with bunting, streamers, and potted plants,” said The New York Times.   The 600 pupils filed in for the ceremony “to the harmony of a patriotic air.”  The girls, “all dressed in white, sat in a body and the knots and bands of red, white, and blue ribbon which each girl wore lent a pretty touch of color to the scene.”

Once again there was a host of speakers and luminaries.  Chairman Peter Macdonald of the Board of School Trustees spoke of the “desirability of instilling a love of country in the children of today who were to be the parents of succeeding generations.  His patriotic words, simply phrased, provoked the applause of his young auditors.”

Former School Trustee Lawson Fuller spoke and took the opportunity to retaliate against former Board members.  In his remarks he referred “to a time when five of the seven members of the Board of Education were present in an intoxicated condition at one of the meetings of the board.  He said he hoped no reporters were present to hear him make this terrible assertion, but it was true, and only served to point out the great advance which had been made in school government since those far-away days.”

After the presentation of the flags, reported The Times, “an interesting programme of singing, recitations, and callisthenic exercises by the pupils followed.”

In 1892 the faculty at Grammar School No. 56 numbered thirty-two.  James H. Hammond, the janitor, had his own apartment in the building.  Four years later the school got a make-over with a new interior paint job.  There were 51 new students admitted that year.

A decade earlier, in 1884, the Good Government Club E complained to the Boards of Excise and Education that a saloon was operating at No. 122 Ninth Avenue, too close to the school.  Now it was back, keeping vigilance on the moral safety of the girls.

On March 27, 1895 The Times reported that the club, located at No. 145 East 18th Street, “has been making observations with special reference to the section of the excise law that restricts licenses near churches and schools.”   A letter was sent to the Excise Board once again demanding the liquor license of the same saloon of William Moore at No. 122 Ninth Avenue not be renewed.

Despite the club’s rantings, William Moore continued to serve whiskey and ale near the school.  His more than thirty years of operation grandfathered his business as exempt from the excise law pertaining to schools and churches.

In 1920 various apparel groups joined in their belief that a trade school should be started at high-school level to prepare students for jobs in the industry.  Among these were the Silk Association, the Sweater and Knit Goods Association, Cotton Converters’ Association, United Dress Waist League, Upholstery Association, and the Federation of Art Societies.  The groups, in connection with the United Textile Workers of America, donated $100,000 worth of equipment to the Board of Education for the establishment of The Textile High School.  The school was organized and installed in an old building on West 13th Street.

On May 4, 1927 the Board of Superintendents recommended to the Board of Education a new building for the Textile High School.  It termed the current structure “antiquated and inadequate.”  In the Roaring ‘20s nothing  could be more attractive for replacement with a modern structure than a mid-Victorian schoolhouse.

It was the end of the line for Grammar School No. 56.  On April 6, 1930, The New York Times ran a headline reading “Huge Modern Buildings Wiping Out Chelsea Landmarks.”  Despite 21st century interpretation to the contrary, there was no negativity intended.  In the article that reported in part on the new $3.5 million Textile High School, the newspaper boasted that “Thus it will be seen that the Chelsea section is fast developing into one of the most desirable and attractive residential districts of Manhattan.”

Not a word was written about the handsome old grammar school it replaced.

photo by the Author

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