Thursday, April 10, 2014

Turtle Bay Music School -- No. 244 East 52nd Street

photo by Alice Lum

In 1845 the number of German immigrants in New York City numbered 24,416—only about a third the number of Irish-born residents.  But within the next five years the German population would double; then double again by 1860 to 118,292.  Most of the Germans settled in the Lower East Side earning the neighborhood the nickname Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany.

But in the first years following the end of the Civil War, one group moved further uptown to the still sparsely-settled 19th Ward, in the 50s around Third Avenue.  Determined that their children would succeed in their adopted homeland, the hard-working Germans quickly established a school—the German School Institute of the Nineteenth Ward—and constructed an impressive building at Nos. 244 to 246 East 52nd Street around 1868.

The structure was similar to many of the buildings erected for the public schools at the time.  The entrance sat within a slightly-projecting bay above the sidewalk.  The basement and first floor were clad in stone, providing a base for the two stories of red brick above.  Decorative eyebrows over the central openings and a handsome double-corbel table were executed in brick.
photo by Alice Lum

When the students underwent their week-long examinations in April 1871, The New York Times praised the accomplishments of the institution.  “An elaborate programme has been prepared for the occasion, and as the Germans of the district take a deep interest in the institution, which, during an existence of only a few years, has become a model establishment, a large attendance may be expected while the examination progresses.”

At the end of the school season that year the students were treated with a “picnic and Summer night’s festival” at Hamilton Park on July 18.  The Times noted that it was patronized “by the elite of the German element in that locality, of which there was a large attendance on the festival grounds.”  In true German fashion the children met at the school and walked to the park with military precision, “presenting a fine appearance and exciting general admiration,” noted the newspaper.

By 1876 the Kindergarten class had 70 students between the ages of 3 and 6 who spent five hours in class each day.  The following year that number had jumped to 84.

Among the first teachers in the school was Emile Schau.  She taught for 17 years until her death in December of 1885.  The German community’s regard for education was reflected in the meeting that was held in the school building on the evening of May 9, 1887 “to take measures for erecting a monument to the memory of Emile Schau.”

When the German students left on the last day of school that spring, they would not return.  The German School Institute moved on and the old building was taken over by the Hebrew Free School Association; bringing the total number of Hebrew Free Schools to three.  Jewish children were offered religious classes, industrial classes and kindergarten; however it extended “its educational and other benefits only to children who attend the public schools of the city.”

On December 11, 1887 the Association held its annual meeting in the new location and reported on the growth.  In 1876 there had been 520 pupils.  So far in 1887 there were 2,581.  In 1892 The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine described the school:

“Each sex is divided into five grades, of which the instruction is religious.  That of the highest includes prayers, Bible, and catechism.  Recitations of Hebrew in concert, followed by excellent English translation, are verbally perfect, and deeply imprint lessons on the memory.  The pupils are all from the public schools.  So are many of the teachers.  Inspired by earnest purpose, and enthusiastic withal, the whole seem happy in their work.

“In the kindergarten is a reproduction of fairy-land, with tokens of bad air, hard fare, and rough experience upon the fairies.  All are forgotten, however, in the excitement of rhythmical motion, song, and juvenile histrionics.  The ‘Snow-storm’ is a favorite performance, all the more acceptable because a sheet of filmy gauze does duty for descending snowflakes.”

Students in the Hebrew Free School study the Torah -- The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, February 1892 (copyright expired)
The girls were also taught sewing, embroidery, dressmaking and other skills necessary to keep a house or make a modest living.  In the industrial classes boys learned wood-working.

The Century had just one complaint—that aging building provided little fresh air.  “Both sexes would do better if complaints of vitiated air and defective ventilation had not such frequent and firm foundation in fact.”

By the turn of the century school building would get a slight make-over when the City took it over as an annex to the Girls’ High School.  On January 19, 1899 The New York Times reported on the School Board meeting held the day before.  “It was also decided that the buildings known as 244 and 246 East Fifty-second Street be put in order as soon as possible for use as an annex to the Girls’ High School in Twelfth Street.”

Parents and students barely had time to get used to the location as an annex to the Girls’ High School before it was changed again.  It quickly became an annex of the High School of Commerce at 120 West 46th Street.  In 1902 the combined locations taught 610 students.

But when the September 1903 school year began things changed once again.  “An event of the day was the transfer of the pupils of the High School of Commerce…to the new school in Sixty-fifth and Sixty-sixth Streets, west of Broadway, which has 1,730 sittings,” said The Times on September 15.  The annex prior to the move was accommodating 836 students.

The school building on East 52nd Street was now used for the Girls’ Technical High School of New York.  There were three other locations and in 1904 it had grown to 2161 students from its initial enrollment 338 in 1902.  The purpose of the school was to “make a more definite preparation for the occupations and responsibilities of life than other schools do” and to “prepare girls to earn their living at an early age while contributing largely to their physical and mental culture,” according to the school’s manual.

Girls work on their sewing skills in 1904 -- The School Journal, November 26, 1904 (copyright expired)
To those ends, the girls were offered courses in dressmaking, designing, housekeeping, printing, millinery, library assistance, various manual trades, and a “commercial course.”  The students were self-managed—in so much as Edwardian students were allowed to be.  The School Journal noted in 1904 “Each class of students is organized with three officers, a captain, a secretary, and a housekeeper.  The captain takes charge at the close of each recitation and conducts the class to its next room.  She also conducts the ‘setting up exercises’ or, as they are commonly called, ‘the Luther Gulicks,’ from the name of the physical training director who introduced them.”

Adolphe Montell-Sayre, the Journal’s writer who visited the school, was impressed.  “I like the spirit of the place.  That immobile rigidity, that deathlike stillness, so common in some New York school assemblies; that Sing Sing lock-step, or something like it, which pupils are commonly required to use when moving from place to place, is lacking.  The young ladies are as natural as they would be in any public meeting and as free as the young women collegians at Vassar or Smith’s.”

But by 1909 the Girls’ Technical High School was gone from No. 244 East 52nd Street and it had been converted to commercial purposes.  The Knickerbocker Engineering Co. was here that year and on September 12 it advertised in the New-York Tribune “Experimental work, model making; inventors’ ideas developed; reasonable terms.”

In 1915 Paddington Sales & Mfg. Co. was in the building as was Wickersheim, manufacturer of “hat conformators and formillon.”  Paddington was the maker of the Paddington Pants-Presser which it advertised as “Works While You Sleep” and “This ‘Mechanical Valet’ is a Useful Gift for a Smart-Dresser!”

K. Wickersheim made his Hat Conformator here in 1915 -- The American Hatter, February 1915 (copyright expired)
Other small companies, like the drug manufacturer Nalo Products Co., would come and go until 1935 when the building was acquired by the Turtle Bay Music School, founded ten years earlier.  The school was formed as a non-profit community institution to provide musical education to those who otherwise could not afford it. 

The building, now three quarters of a century old, received substantial interior renovation and remodeling.  Eighty years later the Turtle Bay Music School remains in the old structure and has earned a familiar place in the neighborhood and in New York City’s musical community.  Among the “core values” the School lists on its website is that “Music education should be made available to all school-aged children.”
photo by Alice Lum
While the institution has garnered high regard over the decades, it remains content in its less-than-pretentious home.  Although a sidewalk widening resulted in the loss of the stoop and a sideways set of replacement stairs; the school built by German immigrants intent on their children's receiving a solid education is largely unchanged.

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