Monday, March 24, 2014

The Lost 1849 Free Academy Building --Lexington Ave and 23rd Street

In 1912 traffic at 23rd and Lexington Avenue seems nearly non-existent.  photograph from the collection of The New York Public Library

During his term as president of the Board of Education from 1846 to 1848 Townsend Harris conceived of a groundbreaking and controversial plan—The Free Academy.  Although a highly successful merchant, he was acutely aware of his lack of formal education.  By now he had self-taught himself French, Spanish and Italian and was a fervent reader.  He sought to provide higher education to young men who, like he had been, were financially unable to attend college.

On Monday, June 7, 1847, the voters of New York City approved the proposed Free Academy.  Sixteen building plots were acquired on Lexington Avenue between 22nd and 23rd Streets, and in November construction was approved by the Common Council.  The area was still only sparsely developed as the fashionable residential communities around Gramercy Square and Madison Square nearby were in the earliest phases of development.

Just as the project of the Free Academy gained momentum, Harris’s mother died in November 1847.  He descended into a deep period of grief and on January 26, 1848 submitted his letter of resignation---ending his ties to the Free Academy he had envisioned.

Townsend Harris’s place on the Academy committee was taken by Robert Kelly.  He hired the fledgling architect whose masterful Grace Church had been completed two years earlier.  That same year, 1846, James Renwick, Jr. won the competition to design the Smithsonian Institution Building in Washington DC.  He designed both buildings, although each highly different from the other, in the new Gothic Revival style and would turn to the same style for the Free Academy.

Construction began in November 1847 and was completed by 1849.  Renwick’s Academic Gothic structure was unlike his previous designs.  Four stories tall, the brick and stone building gained visual height with its corner towers that stretched upward past the roofline.  The openings were separated by brick piers resembling buttresses which broke through the eave line—some of them functioning as cleverly-disguised chimneys.  Dramatic pointed-arched windows with Gothic tracery shared the façade with the flat-headed openings.  Both romantic and imposing, it was the Victorian ideal of academic architecture.

Inside students would find the latest in conveniences.  The building was plumbed for both water and illuminating gas and on each floor was found the last word in modern innovations—drinking fountains.  They were supplied with fresh water from the Croton Reservoir that had brought drinking water to the city in 1842.  The furnishings were of cherry, there was a chapel that accommodated 1,300 persons, and a library furnished with broad work tables.

The New-York Free Academy opened on January 15, 1849.  “Applicants for admission were numerous,” said The New York Times.  “All had to be residents of New-York, to have attended the common schools of the City for at least one year, and were obliged to pass a good examination in spelling, reading, writing, English grammar, arithmetic, algebra, (as far as quadratic equations,) geography, history of the United States, and elementary book-keeping.” 

Despite the arduous admissions test, the school opened with 202 students who were offered courses in history, mathematics, the elements of moral science, the Constitution of the United States, bookkeeping, penmanship, composition and declamation; as well as French, Latin and Spanish.  The course of instruction was aimed at providing young men the tools for success in the business world.

It would not be long, however, before controversy arose.  The New York Times editorialized for the institution and, in fact, suggested another like it for women; the New-York Daily Tribune railed against it.  On January 6, 1854 the New-York Tribune shot a volley back at its rival newspaper.

The Times will please understand that our fundamental objection to the Free Academy and all kindred devices attached to the principle of selecting a part of our citizens or their children and showering on them advantages or favors which are denied to others.  Whether the favored be few or many—the white-skinned or the sharp-witted—we regard this favoritism as at deadly war with the principles of republicanism.”

The New-York Tribune noted that the free education students of the academy received was costing the tax payer $50 to $75 per year. 

While the debate continued, scholars faced another difficulty.  The New York Times recalled on June 3. 1870 that “Those who were graduated from the Academy, however, found that the designation of their Alma Mater made it difficult for them to correct the erroneous impression existing abroad that they had not enjoyed a ‘collegiate’ education, and forced upon them the unpleasant necessity of explaining their status as graduates of the New-York Free Academy.”  Some graduates took courses at other institutions simply to have the word “college” in their resume.

That problem was solved when, on March 30, 1866, the school was made a college by the State of New York and renamed The College of the City of New York.  While solving one problem, the designation did nothing about the still fiery controversy of public cost.  In 1869 the salaries and expenses of the school amounted to $115,000—about $2 million today.  The Sun pointed out that Columbia College took in $65,000 in tuition and the University of the City of New York raised $60,000.  The newspaper asked its readers “does not the fact remove every possible pretest for continuing it in existence?”

In an astonishing display of mid-Victorian antisemitism, The Sun attacked City College from another direction the same year.  On June 26, 1869 the newspaper complained that “The scholastic standard of the City College is not so high as that now prevailing at the great universities, and hence severer study cannot be required to reach it.”  But beyond that, said the newspaper, its students were puny.

“They are not of a healthy and normal youthful spirit,” it wrote, and then attributed the problem to a shocking conclusion.  “If seems that their physical deficiency is ascribed by some people to the circumstance that one-half of them are Jews.”  Saying that the scholars had “narrow shoulders, stooped backs, and hollow chests,” The Sun went on “It is plain that there must be something that is radically wrong with the City College.  The methods of the institution must crush out the youthful spirits of its students; for otherwise it would not be alone among colleges in exhibiting the discreditable physical deficiency in its graduates.”

The Sun was relentless in its criticism of the college.  Throughout 1869 it would expose students who came from well-to-do families, taking advantage of the free education; printing article after article to enrage its readers.  In the meantime, the college was doing very well.

On February 29, 1868 the State Assembly had been presented with a bill to erect a new building to replace the over-crowded Renwick structure.  That bill was voted down; although two years later a two-story addition was approved.  Finally in November 13, 1883 an annex to house the chemistry and physics departments was opened east of the original building.

When this photograph was taken around 1880, the building was already outdated and overcrowded -- photograph The City College of New York
While the students of City College now had collegiate status; they were reviled by the wealthy scholars of Columbia and New York University.  The New-York Tribune noted on June 2, 1886 “The Free College of the City of New-York is an institution not admired by Columbia College students.  Sometimes they even assume to look down upon it as a college without prestige or other claim to respect.”

The newspaper then opined that a gentleman was not defined by his pocketbook, but by his conduct.  The previous day both City College and Columbia had held examinations for applicants.  Upperclassmen of Columbia taunted the potential students, prompting an affronted Tribune writer to say “Yet the 1,215 applicants for admission to the City’s College who were being examined yesterday were left in peace and quiet by the older members of the college, while the 100 candidates at Columbia were jeered and howled at all day by gentlemanlike upper-classmen.  In this contrast at least the students of the City’s College appear to marked advantage.”

In 1889 Commissioner of Fisheries Eugene Gilbert Blackford donated his “comprehensive piscatorial collection” to City College.  On April 24 The Sun reported “It contains 300 preserved specimens, or nearly all the varieties of food fish found in the waters of North America and South American, that have been procured during the past quarter of a century by the United States Fish Commissioners.”

The collection was added to the college’s natural history museum; but further taxed the available space in the building.  By now enrollment had ballooned to 1,466 and Renwick’s 1847 building was outdated and considered unsafe. The trustees began considering a new, modern campus. 

On November 16, 1892 The Evening World reported “A movement is on foot for the erection of a new City College building, and the Board of Education…The cost of the proposed buildings is placed at $750,000, while the cost of the site is estimated at $900,000.”  The committee at the time was favoring “two blocks between Madison and Fifth avenue in the neighborhood of Ninetieth street.”

As the search for an appropriate location continued, developers began eying the plum real estate on which the old building stood.  In January 1897 the committee in charge of a new armory for the 69th Regiment decided “that a new structure should be erected for the regiment at Twenty-third-st. and Lexington-ave., on the site of the City College Building,” said the New-York Tribune on January 29.

Former Mayor Abram Hewitt, however, stepped in—brashly citing personal reasons rather than civic.  “Ex-Mayor Hewitt sent a letter to the Board protesting against the choice of this site, because it would injure his house and also because it is proposed to pull down a house belonging to his wife, which adjoins the college.”

Finally in 1895 the site for the new City College campus far north of the city overlooking the Hudson River was acquired.  Classes continued as normal as the architectural competition was conducted, out of which George B. Post was chosen, and the long project of construction commenced.

In 1906 City College moved north as the first of the buildings was opened—Townsend Harris Hall.  Now a flurry of interest focused on the empty Lexington Avenue structure.  While a permanent function was considered, rooms inside were leased for special functions.  The Friends’ Intelligencer reported on October 6, 1906 that “There are 12,000 women engaged in the public schools of Greater New York, and all have been invited to attend a mass meeting to be held in the old City College Building at Lexington Avenue and Twenty-third Street…to consider the most effective method of working for their claim for equal pay for equal work.”

In September 1907 the trustees of Normal College met to discuss acquiring the building “for 400 or 500 girls in the high school department,” as reported in School magazine.  That plan would fall through, as would a raft of other ideas.

In June 1909 the New York Society for the prevention of Cruelty to Children requested the City to renovate the building as the new Children’s Courthouse; in January 1915 Mortimer L. Schiff presented the idea to the Chamber of Commerce to reopen the building as a “college of commerce and administration;” in 1917 the proposal to use it as an asylum for “mental defectives” was discussed by the Board of Aldermen; and on March 30, 1918 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that architects Crow, Lewis & Wickenhoefer would alter the college building “into a Municipal Museum for the City of New York.”

None of the plans came to fruition.  Then-- as the United States found itself at war in Europe--the Mayor’s Committee of Women on National Defense remodeled part of the structure.  The New-York Tribune reported on May 15, 1918 that Mrs. Oliver Harriman, chairman of the food committee “opened the new experimental kitchen in the eastern wing of the old City College…yesterday.  The building, which has been unoccupied for years, has been entirely remodeled.  The kitchen is said to be the finest food laboratory in the country.”

The women were, apparently, devote to their patriotic mission as well as to style.  “Mrs. Harriman set the fashion for her many assistants yesterday by wearing an attractive looking cook’s cap and a long-sleeved apron.”

In 1927, just before the Renwick structure was demolished, traffic had come to the neighborhood -- photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
Following the war City College again used the old building as its “Commerce Building,” which housed the School of Business and Civic Administration.  But that situation would not last long.  On November 1, 1926 The New York Times reported “the old City College building at Lexington Avenue and Twenty-third Street will be abandoned officially this evening when the students and Faculty will meet there for the last time.”

Just over a year later James Renwick’s ivy-covered Free Academy building was demolished after standing on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 23rd Street for over 80 years.  In 1930 the 16-story structure that today is part of the Baruch College campus was constructed on the site.

photo by Alice Lum


  1. Fascinating article! Do you know who the architect was for the 1883 Chemistry annex?

    1. I do not. Articles specify the brick (Philadelphia) and size (one-story), etc. but not the architect.