Saturday, August 16, 2014

C. B. J. Snyder's Innovative PS 23 -- 70 Mulberry Street

photo by Alice Lum
In 1891 the downtown area known as Mulberry Bend had been notorious for poverty, crime, disease and unspeakable living conditions for at least half a century.  Part of “Five Points,” it rivaled London's worst slums and was described for British readers in 1842 by Charles Dickens in his American Notes for General Circulation.

This is the place; these narrow ways diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth.  Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruit as elsewhere.  The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at home and all the world over.”

Around the time that PS 23 was being constructed, Jacob A. Riis photographed a group of boys on Mulberry Street, some barefoot.  He called his photo "Drilling the Gang."  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Thanks in great deal to reformer and photographer Jacob Riis, changes were being made to Mulberry Bend.  A park was being planned to replace "vile rookeries;" and tenement houses, some with plumbing, were being erected for the hundreds of immigrants who poured into New York Harbor daily.  More and more of the ramshackle wooden structures were being razed as reformers worked diligently to improve the lot of the impoverished residents.

On July 1, 1891 30-year old Charles B. J. Snyder took the position as Superintendent of School Buildings of the Board of Education.  He took on a formidable task.  There were 91 grammar schools and 39 primary schools in Manhattan, and not a single high school.  The school buildings were constructed on a plan little changed since the 1850s—with no regard for proper ventilation, lighting or fire safety.  C. B. J. Snyder was about to change all that.

Before Snyder retired 31 years later he would design more than 700 school buildings within the five boroughs.  His attention to students' well-being changed the way architects would design school buildings going forward.  The Evening World would say on May 19, 1922 “from the very start he introduced innovations and improvements which set the standard for the rest of the world.” 

The first school building Snyder would design for New York City was Public School No. 23 at Mulberry and Bayard Streets, across from the proposed site of Mulberry Bend Park.  Ground was broken in 1891 and construction was completed a year later.  The Evening World noted “Two advances, called by educators the greatest ever made, marked this structure.  It was in this building that the first attempt at fire-proof construction for schools was made.  The first floor had no inflammable materials.”

Snyder added handsome carved details to the educational building.  photo by Alice Lum
Snyder’s other innovation in P.S. 23 was the basement auditorium.  It marked the first step in the movement to provide community centers and neighborhood meeting halls within school buildings.  The overall architectural design of Public School 23 was also a break from tradition.  Snyder melded Norman Romanesque Revival with Renaissance Revival to create a stone and brick fortress with an imposing corner tower.  The rough-cut brownstone base featured arched doorways and carved medieval motifs.  Above, the orange brick fa├žade was broken by paired windows allowing fresh air and sunshine into the classrooms.  The windows of the tower stair-stepped upwards following the course of the interior stairwell.

In 1905 Louise Baurens described the mix of immigrants represented in the student body.  “We have in Public School No. 23 to-day Italians, Germans, Irish, Poles, Russians, Turks, English, Scotch, Greeks, Syrians, Welsh, Austrians, Egyptians, Swiss, Galicians, Lithuanians and a few Americans.  Yes, it is queer, but two or three American families of the old stock still cling to the old 6th.”

As a matter of fact, the New-York Tribune that same year called Public School 23 “the school of twenty-nine nationalities.”  On September 6, 1905 registration for the new school year was held.  Because of the wide array of languages, the task of placing each student in the correct classroom was formidable.

During recess girls dance in the street outside the school to the music of a barrel organ around 1897 -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

“Rosina Giuliano, an Italian, though fair as a little German, had been to school ‘in the country,’ that vast, indefinite phrase which covers the whole of America outside New-York to the New-York born,” said the New-York Tribune.  “Did they give her a card to tell her in what class she belonged when she left? asked Miss Louise Baurens, clerk of Public School 23.  No, there was no document to show how much Rosina knew or did not know.  So, with some scores of children and parents surrounding her awaiting registration, Miss Baurens gave Rosina a little examination, standing at her elbow with Rosina’s non-English speaking mother standing by and looking on.

“’Write a sentence,’ said Miss Baurens; ‘any sentence.’  Rosina wrote very plainly and carefully, ‘My mother sent me to school.’”

With the evidence that Rosina could read and write, Miss Baurens turned to arithmetic.  When she asked the girl if she “could set down a little sum,” she beamed and asked “Shall I take away or put to?”

“The clerk’s face lighted up.  ‘Can you take away and put to both?’ said she; ‘then I guess I know where to put you.’  So Rosina was classified and went away happy.”

The following year, in November, Sir Alfred Mosely, head of Britain’s National Education Commission, sent the first five of 500 English teachers to New York.  The Sun explained that Mosely felt “the only way that Great Britain could ever duplicate in any measure the best features of the American public school system was to send teachers over here to learn at first hand.”

On November 13, 1906 the first school the teachers visited was Public School 23.  “The party was shown through some of the schoolrooms, filled with Italians and Jewish children and other youngsters of every hue and degree of cleanliness,” reported The Sun.  The group saw the innovative teaching methods that went beyond the Three R’s.

“They saw the fish globes and were introduced to the monitor of goldfish.  The miniature flower gardens in the window boxes were proudly pointed out by the teachers and some of the children were called upon to tell what they knew about how a seed grows.”

Pietro Lavelli caused a bit of embarrassment.  “Pietro was recently made monitor [of room 8] by virtue of the fact that he had the finest shine on his shoes of any boy in the room.  But yesterday, though Pietro had the resplendent shoes, he also possessed the dirtiest face in the room.  The teacher explained to her visitors that it was difficult to convince Pietro that black shoes needed no black face to accentuate their value as winners of a monitorship.”

Gaining an education was important to the immigrant families; but earning money was vital.  Hours spent in school were hours that children were unable to spend bringing extra money into the impoverished households.  Therefore Public School 23 remained open into the evening hours so pupils could work as well as go to school. 

Concetta Maccio, 16-years old, went to night school here in 1906.  But her circumstance was somewhat different from many.  In the same class with her was her 65-year old grandmother, Regina Valenti.  Concetta was born in America and spoke English well, with little understanding of Italian.  Her grandmother, on the other hand, “can speak English, though it was hard for her to learn it, and her understanding of the language is not very clear,” said The New York Times on December 3 that year.  “The studies of the two at the evening school, for they both work by day and attend only the evening classes, are the studies that ordinarily comprise the curriculum of the higher primary grades.”

At the same time, Concetta’s mother (and Regina’s daughter), was taking classes at Public School 23.  She was “learning how to keep house and cook according to American principles,” said the newspaper.

The case was not unique among the immigrant population who were desperately trying to improve themselves.  The Times reported “In another class in the same building is a whole family that has been in attendance for nearly three years.  Antoinette Molucca, who owns a news stand in Park Row, is the head of the family.  In the same class with her are her son, Antonio, 12 years old, and his sister, Margaret, 9 years old.  In another classroom, learning dressmaking, is Mrs. Molucca’s step-daughter, Mary.”

The newspaper pointed out two other mature women, both of whom had left Italy when their husbands deserted them and their daughters.  Believing their children would have better opportunities in America, they came to New York in steerage together.  The two families shared an apartment.  “They are all trying hard to master English, so that they can join the dressmaking and millinery classes and increase their earnings.”

Around this time another group was entering into the 6th Ward—the Chinese.  While the majority of Chinese pupils seem to have been obedient and polite; one boy was anything but.  The New-York Tribune on June 3, 1908 called Gong Tom, “the ten-year-old son of a wealthy Chinese merchant of the same name.”  Gong was, according to Principal J. D. Reardon, “incorrigible.”

After a series of “misdeeds,” Gong pushed his parents to the end of their patience.  “According to his mother, Gong stole $6 last week and went to Coney Island,” reported the New-York Tribune.  The boy’s father, who was in Hong Kong at the time, wrote a letter instructing Mrs. Tom to have the boy committed to an institution.

The newspaper said that the boy grinned and swaggered into Children’s Court where Judge Olmstead learned that “he played truant constantly and could not be controlled by his teachers or his mother.”  The justice “told the mother, through the interpreter, that he was sorry that he could not oblige her by sending the boy to an institution where his Confucian training could be continued, but he said that reform would be accomplished, nevertheless.”

No doubt young Gong Tom’s grinning and swaggering abated after he was admitted to the New York Juvenile Asylum.

Among the pupils graduating on January 29, 1917 was Lily De Salvio who had made a name for herself “as a small but active sister of the poor,” according to The Sun.  The newspaper said she wore a white dress which she made herself for the total cost of 48 cents.  “Thanks to her family, Pete the Bartender and scads of other interested persons the floral display stacked on the stage when Lily got her diploma has hardly been excelled in the memory of Little Italy.”

The girl’s help to the poor over the years earned her the special recognition.  The Sun noted “On the third finger of her left hand was a platinum ring set with diamonds forming the numerals ‘1917.’  It was purchased out of the $84 collected by the girls in recognition of her benefactions.”

The money left over from the ring “was invested in 1,000 bricks of ice cream dispensed at the party which followed the graduation exercises.”  Later, Lily’s father handed her a bag of coins.  “Piece by piece he handed the gold over to Lily and she placed it in the trembling hands of the lame, the halt and the blind and other folk whose need she had personally investigated, and whom she had invited to her party.  That was her way of celebrating commencement.”

As was the case with Gong Tom, not everyone was a model student or citizen.  In January 1922 14-year old John Brennie left the building for afternoon recess.  On the ground was an unlighted match.  It was too much a temptation for Johnny to resist.

He went back to the third floor and started a fire in a book case.  “At the time there were 1,800 children in the school,” reported The Evening World.  “The fire was extinguished with little damage.” 

The adolescent arsonist found that one match could lead to severe consequences.  He was arrested on the charge of juvenile delinquency and taken to the Children’s Society for an overnight stay.

In 1920 the upper tower and the overhanging cornice were still intact -- from the collection of the New York Public Library
Snyder’s basement auditorium served the community as well as the school throughout the years.  Following the outbreak of World War II, a draft office opened here.  Newspapers reported that in October 1940, the first day of operation, men lined the sidewalk outside.

By the last quarter of the 20th century New York's Chinatown had engulfed Charles B. J. Snyder’s groundbreaking building.  It ceased being used as a school and in 1980 was renovated for use as the Chinatown History Project (renamed the Chinatown History Museum in 1991).  The building also houses the Chinatown Senior Center.

The upper tower was removed and the full floor addition is noticeable by the change in brick color -- photo by Alice Lum

At some point the upper portion of the tower was lost, and the attic floor and cornice were replaced with a full story.  Architects attempted to sympathetically meld the addition by adding a sort of crenelation along the roofline in keeping with the ground floor’s medieval style.

Snyder's imposing public school building stands as a reminder of a time when reformers determined to eradicate one of the world's worst slums and in doing so elevate the condition of New York's poorest immigrants.

UPDATE:  The building suffered a devastating fire on January 23, 2020 which gutted the structure.


  1. Was there still an African-American population in the area in 1905 and did their children attend the school as well? They weren't mentioned in the list of nationalities.

    1. There are brief mentions of black children every so often; however it appears that by the last decade of the century the majority of African Americans had left the neighborhood

  2. I stumbled across your blog when trying to figure out what school used to exist on Bayard Street (it was mentioned in a children's book). It is fantastic! Thank you for all your hard work.

  3. I remembered attending Public School 23 back in 1976. It was in April in which my family moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan and lived on 33 Henry a predominantly Chinese neighborhood which I am Chinese American myself. I attended PS 23 for only 2 months as a 2nd grader. During that time Confucius Plaza was being built and also at the same time a new public school was finished building. The new school was called the Yung Wing Public School 124 on Division St. So in September of 1976 I attended 3rd grade in PS 23 but lasted only one month in that building. In October we all moved as teachers and students to the new school PS 124 on Division St of Confucius Plaza. So I guess it was a historical period of time as PS 23 was a closing as a public school in that building and at the same time a new public school was inaugurated in the opening of the new PS 124. I was 8 years old back then remembered fondly still as of today.

  4. Wow, you’re probably a year older than me. I moved into Confucius Plaza in Feb 1977, I was just turning 8 and went into 2nd grade. I loved being in a relatively new school and have fond memories of my years there.

  5. There will be a CB3 meeting on this building this Thursday on this building. There's talk the City will be presenting their proposal to demolish the building and replace it with a 20 story tower...
    Land Use, Zoning, Public & Private Housing Committee
    Thursday, May 14 at 6:30pm
    By Phone: +1 646 518 9805, +1 929 205 6099
    Meeting ID: 943 0252 2214

    1. Approval of previous month's minutes
    2. DCAS-led report on 70 Mulberry St demolition and process/options for rebuilding
    3. Vote to adjourn