image from The School Review, September 1903 (copyright expired)
On July 1, 1890, 30-year-old Charles B. J. Snyder was
appointed Superintendent of School Buildings of the Board of Education. Among his responsibilities was the designing
of the new buildings, and before his retirement in 1923 he would design more
than 700 school structures within the five boroughs. One of them, the High School of Commerce
designed in 1900, was especially noteworthy--both for its architecture and its
ground-breaking educational concept.
A few years earlier the Chamber of Commerce and
Columbia University had conceived of a high school that would prepare boys for
positions in commerce, a sort of trade school for businessmen. At the cornerstone laying ceremony on
December 14, 1901, Board of Education President Miles M. O’Brien said in part,
“This school…is the pioneer high school of commerce in New-York, or in the
country, and it owes its creation to the fact that the United States has become
the leading commercial nation in the export of its products, even Britain now
The construction site stretched through the block from
West 65th to West 66th Street, between Amsterdam Avenue
and Broadway. Snyder’s plans projected
the construction costs at $302,640—more than $9.6 million today. His striking brick-and-limestone clad
structure would rise five stories above a basement level. He lavished the generally Renaissance Revival
design with grand neo-Classical elements—paired, engaged Corinthian columns at
the fourth and fifth floors, pierced Roman-style openings on the fifth floor
that matched the openwork railing of the third-floor balcony, and a temple-like
parapet. But most dazzling was the 65th
Street entrance, designed like a grand triumphal arch recessed into the building.
The High School of Commerce was completed in 1902. The five-year curriculum was “broad and
liberal,” according to officials. The
courses required for freshmen, for example, were English; a choice of German,
French or Spanish; Algebra; Biology (“with special reference to materials of
commerce”); Greek and Roman History; Stenography; Drawing and Penmanship;
Physical Training; and Music. First year
students were also required to have a least one hour of “exercises in
voice-training and declamation” per week.
The first (top) and second floor plans. The School Review, September 1903 (copyright expired)
A 16 year old student, Ralph Cooper, wrote a detailed
description to induce other boys to enroll.
Published in the New-York Tribune on May 30, 1909, it read:
Dear Little Men and
I would like to tell you
about the High School of Commerce, the school to which I go. This school is situated at 65th
street, between Broadway and Tenth avenue.
Only boys attend this school.
In the basement there is
a swimming pool and a gymnasium. The
first floor contains several classrooms, an auditorium, seating 1,500 boys, and
the principal’s office. The other four
stories are made up of classrooms and laboratories.
There are many boy
organizations in “Commerce.” Literary
societies, chemistry and camera clubs and others. Seventy teachers make up the faculty.
On Friday afternoons
there are interesting assemblies, and often prominent men speak. Sometimes plays and debates are given to
interest the students.
Boys who wish to get a
good business training should by all means go to the High School of Commerce.
Many graduates went on to impressive careers, like
architect Lewis Ross. He was employed by
Ewing & Chappell in 1916 when he was awarded fourth price in The Sun’s
Country Home Competition for “plans and a design of a dwelling that can be
erected for a sum not to exceed $4,500.”
Athletics played a major role in the lives of the
students, and achievements in baseball, track, football, soccer, basketball,
and other sports were widely followed in the newspapers. One of its most active athletes in the
post-World War I years was Henry Louis Gehrig, who was on the football, soccer,
and baseball teams. In 1920 the Commerce
team traveled to Chicago for a national baseball championship game. There former President William Howard Taft
stopped by to wish the team well. On
June 26, in the ninth inning of the game in Wrigley Field, Gehrig hit a grand
slam home run—only the 19th ever hit in the ballpark.
Students in the basement level swimming pool. from the collection of the New York Public Library
Seven years later Lou Gehrig was a sports
phenomenon. On June 27, 1927, he was
invited to award letters to the Commerce athletes and to referee the school
track meet. He had no idea what he was
headed for. The New York Times
reported, “Lou Gehrig was rushed at Pelham Bay Park yesterday afternoon. The star first baseman of the New York
Yankees had this experience when 2,500 youngsters from the High School of
Commerce rushed him at the annual field day of the school.” The famous graduate somehow managed to
perform his duties, as well to sign scores of autographs and baseballs.
A peculiar incident happened on January 17, 1929. The New York Times began an article
saying, “The lives of more than 1,000 pupils at the High School of
Commerce…were endangered yesterday afternoon when three fires of incendiary
origin started in different parts of the school within half an hour.” At the time, midyear examinations were in
The first blaze was discovered around 2:30 in the
gymnasium on the fifth floor. A physical
education teacher, Samuel Prenn, walked into the room and found a container of
wastepaper in the corner on fire. He and
an assistant custodian put it out with a fire extinguisher, then reported it to
the principal. Ten minutes later a
janitor discovered a pile of trash on fire in a washroom on the first
floor. He, too, was able to put it out
with a fire extinguisher. Then, swimming
instructor Hugh Jones noticed smoke coming through a transom of a ground floor
classroom. The New York Times
said, “He broke open the door, found the room unoccupied, and the wastebasket
under the teacher’s desk in the middle of the room in flames.” While he was able to put it out, the desk was
heavily burned and, had the fire not been discovered when it was, would have
caused much damage.
The size of the school was double with an addition (left) in 1930. from the collection of the New York Public Library
Lou Gehrig died of Amyotrophic Lateral Schlerosis,
often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease, on June 2, 1941, just before his 38th
birthday. In tribute two years later in
November 1943, the students of the High School of Commerce launched a
fund-raising drive. Within two months
they had raised the equivalent of $30,000 today, with which to purchase an ambulance
as a gift to the United States Army.
At a ceremony in the school auditorium on January 25,
1944, Lieutenant Marcella R. Meyer of the WACS, accepted the fully equipped
army field ambulance called “The Spirit of Lou Gehrig.” In her remarks, she said, “The gift of this
ambulance is a manifestation of the spirit of a man who was loved by
everybody.” Gehrig’s widow then asked
the assembled students to say a prayer “for the boys who will be transported in
A substantial “annex” was erected in 1930 that
essentially doubled the size of the facility.
Three decades later it looked as if the school would be enlarged
again. As much of the old San Juan Hill
neighborhood was being demolished for the Lincoln Square redevelopment project,
The New York Times reported on April 20, 1961 that only two tenement
buildings still stood on the block with the school. “The city wants to tear down the two
remaining tenement buildings to extend the High School of Commerce,” said the
But the city changed its mind. In 1964 demolition of the High School of
Commerce was scheduled. Ironically, a
protest letter to the editor of The New York Times did not seek to
preserve Charles B. J. Snyder’s magnificent Roman-inspired structure, but the
more industrial 1930 addition. “It is
little more than thirty years old and with slight renovations would be in
excellent shape,” said the writer. “Why
tear this wing down?”
In the end nothing was preserved. Today The Julliard School occupies the block.
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