Thursday, June 19, 2014

The 1902 Speyer School -- Nos. 512-516 W. 126th Street

James Joseph Speyer had worked in the Frankfort, Paris and London branches of his family's bank before returning to New York City in 1885 to join Speyer & Co.  Although he sat on the boards of several other banks and trust companies; his interests went far beyond banking. 

He was one of the founders of the Provident Loan Society following the Financial Panic of 1893.  The organization was established to aid the poor who were being taken advantage of by unscrupulous pawn dealers.  The same year that the Provident Loan Society was incorporated, in 1894, he was actively involved in the overthrow of Tammany Hall.

When Speyer married the young widow Ellin Lowery in 1897 he was already a trustee of the Teachers’ College of Columbia University.  At the time settlement houses were cropping up in impoverished neighborhoods, a result of the rampant social reform movement.  In these facilities struggling women learned skills like sewing and housekeeping; and children were provided with practical instruction as well as a clean, safe environment for play.

Speyer was not merely interested in the concept.  The New York Times noted in 1901 that “He is prominently connected with the University Settlement Society.”  On June 11 that year the newspaper announced that Ellin and James J. Speyer had donated $100,000 to Teachers’ College for “a building for an experimental school, equipped with the latest appliances.”  The significant donation, more than $2.5 million today, would be spent in the gritty neighborhood of Lawrence Street (later renamed 126th Street) near Amsterdam Avenue.

The New-York Tribune reported on the same day, “The purpose of the givers is to provide a model public school.  The building will have five stories and a basement.  In the basement are to be a large gymnasium, baths, toilet rooms, janitors’ quarters and heating and ventilating plants.  The first story will contain an office for the principal of the school, a children’s reading room, a library a kindergarten room and classroom.  On the second and third floors are to be eight classrooms, each with desks for thirty children, and four recitation rooms.  The fourth floor will provide rooms for manual training, sewing and cooking, a dining room and two recitation rooms.”

The roof would provide outdoor space for a garden—not the expected roof garden of chairs and potted plants, though.  Instead it would be a true garden plot “in which children will be instructed in the care of plants and flowers.”

The fifth floor was reserved for staff “with a parlor, dining room, kitchen, six bedrooms and three private studies.”  Because the Speyer School would not be just for children, trained settlement house workers would live in the Speyer School.  That arrangement allowed the building to be open year round in the days and evenings for the use of the community.

Evening classes were provided for adults and the gymnasium and library were open to the public when not required for normal classes.  To assist the impoverished residents of the area to better themselves, “the facilities in manual training, domestic art and domestic science will be at the disposal of extra school classes when not otherwise in use,” reported the Tribune.  Because turn-of-the-century tenements had little or no bathing facilities, the baths were made available to the public as well when the children were not using them.

Boys and girls from the tenement districts had little hope for a bright future in 1901.  Social reformers aspired to change this.  “The Speyer School will be an experiment station,” said the New-York Tribune.  The newspaper explained that the school’s goal was to improve on the best that was offered by social settlements.

“A critical period in the life of most boys and girls is the years between fourteen and twenty.  It is the time when the support and guidance of the school are replaced by the necessity of earning a livelihood.”  The school, therefore, would focus on the occupations each child was interested in and provide addition studies on those fields.

On August 9, 1901, a month after the title to the plot of land at 94 Lawrence Street was obtained, architect Edgar A. Josselyn filed plans for the Speyer School.  The estimated cost of the structure was put at $70,000.

Josselyn would produce a five-story German Renaissance structure of buff brick and terra cotta.  Minimal ornamentation on the lower floors would be compensated for by a two-story stepped gable with swirling console brackets and exuberant carving.  A thin opening above the paired attic windows gave the impression of an additional floor.

Construction took over a year and the dedication exercises were held on April 23, 1903.  In his speech, Dean Russell stressed that the school was intended “to elevate the community in which it was planted.”  James Speyer spoke as well, diminishing his role in the process.  According to Manual Training Magazine, “The building, he said, is but a small thing.  It is the work of the teacher which tells.  Citizens must be intelligent as well as law-abiding.  In peace and in war, and in the solution of industrial questions, American schools will show their influence.”

The school shortly after completion --

The school was an immediate success, prompting the New-York Tribune to remark the following day “Already the building is taxed to its utmost capacity, and is the home of numerous boys’ and girls’ clubs.”

The roof was soon used for far more than merely the instructional flower and vegetable garden.  On May 30, 1906 the New-York Tribune reported “On the roof of the school is the playground, in the corner of which a model bedroom, with plenty of light and air, has been built by the children in the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grades.”

To help pay for additional equipment the Speyer School staged a sale of the students’ manual work.  The students themselves were responsible for the operation of the sales.  In December 1907, for instance, the 8th grade was in charge of finance and the 7th grade was responsible for “management of sale.”  There were seven special committees like the “examining committee” (“if carelessly made or unsuitably constructed, the examiners will reject articles and return them to the grade which was responsible.").  The “committee on arrangements” found suitable rooms, ensured they were properly cleaned and heated and provided suitable furniture, cash boxes, etc.  Although girls in the sixth through eighth grades supplied some baked goods, there was a special committee on “Candy and Cake.”  Its job was to “endeavor to secure the co-operation of adult friends of Speyer School, who may be willing to make candies for our sale.”

The School Journal noted that the year before the proceeds from that sale went for gymnastic apparatus for the roof playground.  This year the fifth graders had made address booklets for sale.  Frances Van Camp described them.  “First we covered the outside with Japanese paper.  Then cut twenty-seven papers for the inside and marked them.  We printed addresses inside and tied a silk cord with a pencil on the end.”

The sixth grade made needle-books, lamp shapes, baskets and mounted pictures; the seventh and eighth grades fashioned sofa cushions, clipping cases, teapot stands, and decorated fans.

When the sale closed the children had netted $82.92 to be spend on school equipment.  But far more importantly they had learned practical lessons in organization, retail practices, marketing and other business principals.

The focus of the school began to change in 1915.  On February1 that year the New-York Tribune noted “A class for exceptional children will be opened at the Speyer School, a part of Teachers College, February 8.  The judgment of fond parents, however, will not be the sole qualification.  Dr. Louis E. Bisch, a specialist in the treatment of atypical children, and Dr. Naomi Norsworthy, associate professor of educational psychology, will examine and classify the children.”

By “exceptional” and “atypical” the school did not necessarily mean gifted.  Included were those “suffering all the disadvantages of the child mentally below normal,” as described by The Sun eight months later.  Dr. Bisch had implemented an experimental program to study and teach the learning challenged.  His students came not from the underprivileged neighborhood, but from the sitting rooms of Manhattan’s elite.

“In appearance most of the children are normal,” said The Sun on October 24.  “All of them are sons and daughters of well to do parents.  Some of them go to school in automobiles.  All of them have nurses or other attendants to look after them on their trips between home and classes.”  But, said the newspaper, “Each child is a special study in feeblemindedness.”

At the time slow learning and physically disabled children were essentially overlooked by the educational system.  The Speyer School was ground-breaking in this regard.

“All the children in the Speyer School are below normal.  One of them can read, one can write a little.  The senses of one little girl are acute, and she recognizes sounds or colors readily, though letters or numbers are too abstract for her grasp.  Another little girl easily catches the words of a song, but during singing becomes confused and forgets them.”

Not “all the children” in the school were challenged, as The Sun said.  The school looked to the other end of the intelligence spectrum as well.  In February 1916, 200 boys who had completed the 6th grade were selected for another experimental program.  Based on their keen learning abilities, they were put into a “rapid advance” program.  “They are divided into groups, and shifted about on the basis of individual progress,” reported The Evening World on February 2.  “The boys with whom the experiment succeeds will be able, at the end of two years, to enter the second year of the city high schools, thus gaining one school year.”

At the same time the top floor had been converted for use as the Friendly Home for Girls.  The “home” trained 36 orphaned girls “in all branches of domestic science,” explained The New York Times on January 7, 1917.  The newspaper said that The Friendly Home “marks a departure in the treatment of orphans.”

Supervised by Mrs. Julius J. Frank, Chairman of the Ladies’ Serving Society of the orphan institution, the Home prepared young girls to obtain jobs.  “According to Mrs. Frank many girls already have been placed in households—not as servants, but as ‘mothers’ assistants.’”

As changes in theories of education continued, the Speyer School adapted.  In 1935 a new “experimental school” was established as a joint venture of Teachers College and the Board of Education.  On September 8, 1935 The New York Times described it as an “effort to discover and develop new methods for dealing with both the dull-normal and the bright pupil.”

The school was rechristened PO 500 and the program’s formal title was “The Public School Experiment with Mental Deviates.”  The “deviates” were selected by means of intelligence tests.  “Slow” learners were defined as children with IQ’s of 75 to 90; “rapid” learners had IQ’s of 130 to 200.

From its inception the experiment was to last only until each student’s thirteenth birthday or until February 1941.  After that, the school building was shuttered and, for the first time in four decades, sat unused.  On April 11, 1942 The New York Times reported that among the buildings a group looked at as a possible addition to the City College School of Business was “the abandoned Speyer School at Amsterdam Avenue and 126th Street.”

Finally in May 1946 Columbia University announced that “Speyer School will be altered to allow quarters for 125 single students.”  It was part of the emergency housing project approved by Governor Dewey to provide housing for returning veterans attending college.  But later that year, in October, Teachers College donated the building to the two-year old Manhattanville Neighborhood Center.

A year and a half renovation costing $160,000 was completed in March 1948.  A dedication ceremony on March 21 drew 250 attendees.  The Rev. Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, in his comments, emphasized that the “center wants to go beyond the remedial needs of the neighborhood.”

From 1964 through 1977 the building was owned by the Episcopal Diocese of New York.  During the turbulent civil rights movement era it was the scene of several programs focused on civil rights.  Here one of the first Head Start programs was based and a week before his assassination Dr. Martin Luther King visited the building.

Finances were a problem and in 1977 the Diocese gave the building to the Paul Robeson Community Center; but that group, too, was unable to support it financially.

The former Speyer School, always a center of social outreach and neighborhood improvement, would continue its changing role in 1991.  Across the street sat St. Mary’s EpiscopalChurch which, throughout the 20th century, had been active in social and community causes.  By now the Speyer School building had been abandoned and neglected for years and St. Mary’s purchased it in a joint venture with the Episcopal Mission Society.

After renovations, it opened as the St. Mary’s Center for persons with HIV/AIDS.  Today the facility continues to house and provide its clients with medical, social and psychosocial support. 

More than a century after its construction, the surprising German Renaissance structure continues its intended purpose of providing support and outreach to the Harlem community; just as James and Ellin Speyer intended.

photographs taken by the author


  1. This is amazing! I was trying to find info on the Speyer School, as that's where my grandfather went. Wanted to find the pic on NYPL's Old NYC map (they do have a photo), but couldn't figure out where "Lawrence Street" was and your post helped me find it. Of course, now I'm left wondering if my grandfather was exceptionally smart... or feebleminded. I'm going to go with "smart" because, well, he was my grandfather.

  2. What year was your granddad there? I have my father's January 1927 graduation photo with lots of other boys in it.

    1. I just saw this! I believe he was there from 1916 to 1925 and started at Dewitt Clinton High School in fall of 1925 (since he finished in 1929).

    2. The school is now haunted by children… I’m an attendant there, was wondering what happened… thank you for the history!! I thought it must have been a good place… maybe the special needs students got stuck there or some died and they knew it was a safe place?? I wonder…