Thursday, June 6, 2019

The Barnard School for Girls - 421 Convent Avenue

In the early 1890's the bulk of women who worked were shop girls, teachers, nurses or factory workers.  Upper crust females busied themselves, instead, with charity work and social activities.  There were a few, however, like Annie Doyle who made their own fortune within a world of men.  A real estate developer, she would wheel and deal in properties into the first decade of the 20th century.

In 1893, as high-end residences arose in the Sugar Hill neighborhood, she hired the architectural firm of A. B. Ogden & Son to design a row of six upscale rowhouses on Convent Avenue, stretching north from the northeast corner of West 148th Street.  Designed essentially as three pairs (an A-B-A-B-A-C pattern) the residences would rise three stories above English basements. 

Construction was begun in October 1893 and would not be completed until April 1895.  The corner house was intended to be the showpiece of row, and while the other five cost $13,500 to erect, it cost $23,000--or around $662,000 today.

Although its entrance was centered on the 85-foot long 148th Street elevation, it took the Convent Avenue address.  It shared little in common with the rest, although, somewhat surprisingly, it shared a shallow, modified mansard with No. 423; the others wore stone balustrades. 

Faced in pinkish brick and trimmed in brownstone, the residence sat upon a rough-cut brownstone basement level.  The box stoop rose to an arched double-doored entrance flanked by windows.  The openings were arranged to create a Palladian effect.  A thin stone cornice separated the first from upper floors where ornamentation relied on quoins, spandrel panels and engaged columns between the grouped openings of the third floor, 148th Street elevation.

The unusual mansard is evident in this early photograph of the Barnard School.  photograph by Thaddeus Wilkerson from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In 1885 Dr. William L. Hazen had founded the Barnard School for Boys.  Two years later he brought in Theodore Edward Lyon as an instructor of English, mathematics, and science.  Then, in 1892, Katherine Huguenin Davis joined them to form the Barnard School for Girls.

The exclusive school moved into No 421 Convent Avenue.  Katherine Davis lived in the school, both teaching and overseeing the girls.  She came from an old and respected family.  Never married, she was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Founders' and Patriots' Club.

Pupils in the Barnard School for Girls came from well-to-do families with high expectations for their daughters.  Katherine Davis, no doubt, had no tolerance for misconduct or impropriety.  An advertisement in 1914 promised "The School seeks to co-operate with the home in keeping the pupil a wholesome girl."

Unlike some girls' schools which simply prepared their students to enter polite society, focusing on French, music, deportment and arts; the Barnard School for Girls prepared theirs for higher education.  "The curriculum includes all grades from Kindergarten to College," said an ad.  "The certificate at the School admits to the leading Colleges...No pupil of the School has ever failed to enter College."

Katherine Davis worked under Theodore Edward Lyon.  The New York Times later explained that he "retained the title of associated headmaster at both schools, although devoting most of his attention to the girls' school."

The school had leased the house from Maria L. Aldrich for years.  Finally she sold the property to the Barnard School for Girls in July 1920.

Dated 1927 and labeled "Barnard School for Girls," this class picture includes six unexpected boys. 

In November 1934 the school sold moved to No. 554 Fort Washington Avenue and sold Convent Avenue property to the Millicent Realty Corporation.  It was converted to a rooming house.

The 1940 census shows 20 "lodgers" living here.  Almost all of them were unmarried.  Josephine Cooper was among the tenants in the building a decade later.  Her "vacation" which began in the autumn of 1950 was remarkable enough to earn newspaper attention.  The New York Age, one of Manhattan's most widely-read Black newspapers, reported on September 16, "A gala 'Farewell Party' was held last Sunday for Miss Josephine Cooper of 423 W. 148th St., who sailed on the Liberte Thursday on the first leg of a year's vacation which will ultimately take her to Lagos, Africa."

Another resident around that time was Sidney Evans.  In 1955 he worked as a doorman at a Times Square nightclub.  He was a witness to a violent encounter on the night of September 13 that year.  Frank (Frisco) McBride worked as a "portrait painter" in the Times Amusement Corp.  But that night he had been drinking--a lot.

When a man "pushed" him, according to McBride, he became enraged and rushed through the Times Square crowd to "get vengeance."  But he could not find the offender so he lashed out with a sharp beer can opener at passersby--stabbing them randomly.

Evans told police that McBride "seemed to become enraged all of a sudden."  McBride was tackled and subdued by two detectives.  He explained his behavior by simply saying "I must have been crazy drunk."

Today the building holds just two large residences.  Other than a fire escape and replacement windows, little has changed outwardly to the former school where Katherine Huguenin Davis diligently oversaw the virtue of her pupils.  

photographs by the author

No comments:

Post a Comment