|In 1995 a garage entrance was brutally gouged into the facade.|
In the last quarter of the 19th century, officials struggled to keep up with the waves of immigrants who daily swarmed into New York Harbor. Once cleared, most of those from Germany and nearby countries settled on the Lower East Side. Families crammed into tenement buildings. The increase in population required augmented city services, like larger schools.
In 1885 David I. Stagg had been Superintendent of Public School Buildings for 13 years. The architect died at the age of 70 the following year. Perhaps his last project was the designing of Grammar School 79 at Nos. 36 through 42 East 1st Street.
The school was originally established in 1832 on Houston Street (then called North Street). A newer facility had been built on the 1st Street property; but that building, too, had become sorely inadequate. In 1885 work on what The New York Times described as “reconstructing” Grammar School 79 commenced. It was completed early in 1886.
David I. Stagg produced a highly-attractive school house clad in red brick and trimmed in limestone and terra cotta. His up-to-date design was, for the most part, High Victorian Gothic although he splashed it with Italianate and Queen Anne elements.
|Stone quatrefoils and pointed arches reflect the Gothic; while ruddy tiles and incised decoration were inspired by Queen Anne.|
Drawing from the Queen Anne style’s love for asymmetry, the four sections—each five stories tall and corresponding to the building lots—were different. Yet they worked together in achieving a pleasing and harmonious unit. Gothic arches (their pointed sections filled with saw-tooth brickwork), foliate Queen Anne tiles, and a delightfully irregular roofline came together in the latest of Victorian taste. The stone Gothic entrance at No. 40 was especially eye-catching.
Grammar School 79 opened on March 24, 1886. “A little entertainment by way of rejoicing over a reconstructed schoolhouse and consequently increased accommodations for children in the district was given in Grammar School No. 79, First-street, near Second-avenue,” reported The New York Times. Among the speakers was Professor David B. Scott of City College. He had been vice-principal of the school in 1849. He told the children that 38 years ago “smart scholars used to be drafted to teach the dull ones.”
In the days before the wide-spread use of central heating, the janitor's apartment of Grammar School No. 79, located on the top floor, was heated by an iron stove. Only eight months after the school opened, Thomas Walsh’s apartment stove caused a scare.
A few minutes before 3:00 on the afternoon of November 29, 1886, just as the children were filing out, fire broke out in Walsh’s apartment. “It was caused by hot coals falling out of an open grate,” reported The New York Times the following day. Cool heads prevailed and the children arrived home never knowing of the excitement. “There was no alarm sent out, and all the classes were dismissed before the pupils heard of the fire.”
The children experienced a much more bizarre scare two years later. On Wednesday afternoon October 3, 1888 “hundreds of children were pouring out” of the school building, according to The Sun a few days later. Moments before, quite unbelievably, a 9-foot, 6-inch “real anaconda” crept from the sewer at the corner of 1st Street and Second Avenue.
“When first seen it was gliding along First street toward First avenue,” reported The Sun. “The children saw it and shrieked.”
In his terror, one child exposed his need to bone up on his Natural History studies. “Look out for the crocodile!” he screamed.
The shrieks of the swarming, panicked children drew neighbors who rushed to rescue them. “Their cries brought hundreds more of persons flocking from doors all along the block, and heads appeared at every window. The school janitors and other grown persons hustled the children back into the building and up the high stoops in the neighborhood. As the snake moved along, men, women, and children fled before it, screaming warnings to others ahead.”
The commotion confused and alarmed the reptile. “It stopped and threw itself into a coil, with three or four feet of very vicious looking body vibrating upright from the centre and a mouth eight inches long gaping open to let a forked tongue spit out.”
The threatening pose refueled the terror on the street. “The children screamed louder than ever and everybody that could run did so.”
In truth, not everybody ran. The massive snake would have been much better off staying inside the sewer. Four men ran out from a wheelwright’s shop with clubs and tools. They set upon the snake and after the first heavy blow, a suddenly-courageous crowd descended upon it. “Everybody else that could get anything for a club were on top of it hammering the life out of it. It fought desperately, but it had no chance,” reported The Sun.
Once the execution was completed, the bloodied reptile was measured and examined. “The snake is undoubtedly a genuine anaconda, nearly full grown,” explained the newspaper. “It is supposed that it came from some South American vessel unloading at an East River dock, crept into the sewers, and along them to the place where it reached the street. Some sailor probably brought it from South America.” The Sun considered a variation of the alligator-in-the-sewers theory. “It may have come from there when young, hidden in fruit or other cargo, and have grown to its present size in the sewers, but that is not likely.”
|Appearing rather haunted-house-ish today, the western-most entrance included paired Gothic-inspired windows.|
Educating the impoverished children of the Lower East Side was more about preparing them for a trade than the unrealistic goal of higher education. In 1890 a class in woodworking was added to the curriculum. On September 8 that year The Evening World reported “Grammar School No. 79 will have a workroom in a few weeks, and the lads there will take up the chisel, the plane and saw.”
The Manual Training department was housed in the eastern-most section of the building, at No. 42. In 1894 a ground-breaking concept was instituted—summer school for boys learning a trade. Conducted by The Society for Improving the Condition of the Poor, the summer classes sought “the inducement of an occupation more akin to recreation than labor, to take the children off the street for a least a few hours a day of their vacation term, which is not always profitable and frequently deleterious.” The Society added “It is believed that direct and immediate benefits will be received by the children, and that it may turn many from the fatal paths of idleness and open a way to active, useful, and happy lives.”
When the following year’s summer term ended, closing exercises were held which “consisted of singing, speaking, and calisthenic exercises by the boys and girls, who range from ten to fourteen years in age,” reported The Times.
In his remarks that day, Trustee Haight took the opportunity to air his views on bicycle riding on Sundays. He told the youngsters it was “a menace to society, for those who rode so much could not go to church on Sunday.” The Times explained “For this reason he styled the practice not only vulgar, but immoral. He went so far as to state that the custom threatened to ruin the country, the Church, and the morals.”
Haight prayed that the bicycling craze would soon pass. “Besides being harmful, it was as vulgar as roller skating, and, perhaps like it, would die a natural death.”
In the early years of the new century a group of boys from what was now Public School No. 79 organized The Albert Lucas Club. The Sun said its original purpose was the “promoting surprise parties, outings to Central Park, fishing excursions and chestnut expeditions.” But the excitement of those social events soon faded.
|Extremely close examination of the stone lintel to the right reveals PUBLIC SCHOOL 79 still visible.|
The club’s president Oscar Surfin, decided to convert the club to a political organization, based on the models of the adults. Oscar’s father was an ardent supporter of William Randolph Hearst and the boy followed his lead. “Being president, what Oscar said had to go, and the organization spurned society and took up affairs of State,” reported The Sun on October 18, 1906.
The club held daily meetings in the school yard until the janitor chased them out. Undeterred, Oscar continued the political meetings in the street. On the night of Tuesday, October 16, 1906 a large “ratification meeting” was planned.
Oscar sent a few of the members to get a platform. Eight of them returned with a large dry goods crate. The meeting was called to order by Oscar at 8:30. “There was no band of music; neither were there fireworks, but the chairman had an idea,” reported The Sun.
“Would Slats McCaffrey sing ‘Waiting at the Church’ to cause a bunch to gather?”
Slats did sing and, sure enough, a crowd collected. According to Policeman Patrick Ryan later, there were “thousands choking the street.”
Although the children could not participate in the electoral process, the street tough Oscar felt they could sway their parents to vote for Hearst for Governor and Adolph Stein for Assembly. The Sun mimicked his Lower East Side dialect in its reporting.
“Loidies and gents, us guys is here to-night ter hand youse de real ting an’ tell youse dat Hoist and Stoin is de goods. Me an’ de speakers from de Albert Lucas Club is out fer Hoist and Stoin, an’ every guy wat’s in de club if he could vote wud vote fer Hoist and Stoin.”
The boy explained that while Hearst was a millionaire he wasn’t able to personally give financial help to the poor. “Aldough he has a bunch o’ cash hisself, he’s de frien’ o’ de poor. He ain’t got nuff to go ‘round fer all de poor, so he ain’t givin’ out nawthin’, ‘cause dem wot wudn’t git some wud be sore. But he’s de grapes and molasses, just de same.”
He added a convincing boost to his endorsement by promising that he had “it straight” that Hearst would reduce the school day to three hours.
The din of the crowd became such that, according to Policeman Ryan, it could be heard blocks away. He elbowed his way into the mass and asked Oscar “What’s all this about?”
Hearing that it was a mass meeting in support of Hearst, the policeman asked to see Oscar’s permit. Oscar admitted he had no permit; but warned the cop “youse had better keep her hands off of us, ‘cause this is a meeting’ o’ de Albert Lucas Club and youse’ll git a onion if you butt in ter us.”
The crowd’s cheers emboldened the boy. He threatened to have Ryan transferred to Staten Island after Hearst was elected; or possibly fired. The throng jeered and hooted at the policeman who found himself in an awkward standoff with a street-wise kid. Oscar Surfin’s foray into politics ended in Children’s Court.
Charged with disorderly conduct, causing a crowd to collect and with violating a city ordinance in holding an open air meeting with a permit, Oscar was less audacious when he stood before Justice Zeller. He admitted he held the meeting, but said he wasn’t “wise that I was doing wrong.”
The good-hearted judge dismissed the charges. “You are all right, Oscar, he said, “and I discharge you.”
By the beginning of the 1920s, the Lower East Side neighborhood was no longer one of German social halls and music halls. Serious gangland crime had infiltrated the area and the 1st Street block around the school saw gunfire on more than one occasion.
Paul Sprofra regularly missed school in 1921, prompting the principal of Public School 79, Dr. Buckley, to urge his father, Paul Sprofra, Sr., to “make the boy attend school regularly,” according to the New-York Tribune on March 16, 1921. Buckley promised that if the boy attended school he would give him special attention.
But 15-year old Sprofra was under the influence of someone far more persuasive than his father or his principal. Described by the Tribune as “regarded as a backward pupil,” the teen was still in the 6th grade. He had been recruited by a criminal known only as “Pony Fagin” to peddle narcotics.
In the spring of 1921 Fagin approached the teen and asked him if he would like to make between $5 and $10 a day. More than $100 in today’s money, it was hard for a boy struggling in school to turn down. According to the New-York Tribune, “The man then took him in hand and spent five days training him in the methods of handling drugs in packages and bottles and of approaching drug users.”
Fagin’s clients knew well where to find the drugs. Paul Sprofra (who was just one of about 25 school boys working for the pusher) waited at the end of an alley and his customers came to him. The password was “I am looking for someone.” The boy charged $2 for a bottle of cocaine and $1 for “a paper package.”
But Paul Sprofra’s career as a drug dealer was short lived. He was arrested on March 15, 1921 with 40 packages of drugs in his possession. The mentally-challenged boy seemed confused. He told the detectives “I didn’t know it would do them any harm. They seemed to need it awful bad, because some of them were shaking all over.”
Sprofra admitted to selling to scores of men and women and said he never made less than $6 a day as his percentage of the take. His father, who had been pushed to keep his son in school, insisted he had known nothing about “his son’s commercial activities.”
In the 1970s the old building was no longer adequate for use as a school. By 1972 the westernmost section, No. 36, had been converted to the St. Joseph’s Home. The Catholic Workers who run the home insist that is it not a homeless shelter, but a home for “fellow travelers.”
The other three sections of the building—Nos. 38 through 42—were converted to apartments, a two-year process that began in 1995. The conversion resulted in three and four apartments per floor. At the same time a garage entrance was gouged into the central section.
But despite that architectural barbarism and the hodge-podge of roof additions, the bulk of Stagg’s captivating Grammar School No. 79 survives--a rare example of Victorian High Gothic architecture in Manhattan.
photographs by the author