Saturday, October 8, 2022

The Horace Mann School -- Broadway and West 120th Street


photo by ajay_suresh

In 1887, Nicholas Murray Butler was named president of the newly-formed New York College for the Training of Teachers (later Teachers College), an adjunct of Columbia University.  Decades later he explained, "a clinic was needed."  The "clinic" would be the venue for what today is known as student teaching.  But this school was intended to be different from others.  Located at 9 University Place, it was named The Model School.

In 1927 Butler said, "What we did forty years ago was to insist that the time had come for applying the science of psychology to the teaching of children in school.  The teacher himself should be taught something of the mind which he is to train."  Simply put, the philosophy was that what the teacher puts into a child might be of less importance than what a teacher draws out of that child.

Initially, two highly respected families entrusted their children to The Model School.  It opened with just four students in 1887--two were the children of Dr. Cyrus Edson and the other pair were the children of Watson Gilder.  The school gained in size and reputation at an astounding rate.  Educators from around the world traveled to observe the methods used here.  In 1894 the name was changed to the Horace Mann School, "not because Horace Mann ever had anything to do with our enterprise, but because he was regarded as a kind of prophet or Wesley of education," said Butler.  

In 1895 Columbia University began the process of moving its Midtown campus to Morningside Heights.  When 20 building lots became available in 1898 at the corner of Broadway and 120th Street, George W. Vanderbilt gave the $100,000 toward the $150,000 purchase price, with John D. Rockefeller Sr. providing the remainder.  Their generous gift--totaling $5 million in 2022--was surpassed by that of V. Emerett Macy and his wife.  They donated $500,000 to erect the building as a memorial to Macy's mother, Mrs. Josiah Macy (who, incidentally, had been the first person to give a building to the university, the Macy Manual Arts Building).

The architectural firm of Howells & Stokes, working with Edgar H. Josselyn, designed the Horace Mann School.  Their Tudor Revival design included a two-story brownstone base, surmounted by three-and-a-half stories of orange brick.  The brickwork of the fourth floor and tables was diapered in a diamond pattern consistent with its 16th century models.  Square-headed drip moldings sat above the openings and Tudor style carvings decorated the entrances and upper portions of the building.

from the collection of the New-York Historical Society.

Having come a long way from its original four students, the new Horace Mann School could accommodate 1,000--600 in the kindergarten and elementary department, and 400 in the high school.  The ratio of girls to boys enrolled was approximately 50-50.  The school opened on September 28, 1901, three months before its formal dedication.  "The building contains thirty-nine class and recitation rooms, an auditorium, a library, a large teachers' room, conference rooms, studios, and a large luncheon room," wrote the New-York Tribune.  "All through the building there are handsome pictures and copies of sculpture, and additions to the collection are being made continually."  The newspaper described the auditorium, which could seat the entire study body as "lofty, and has a large gallery and a roomy stage.  It is lighted by stained glass windows, in which the names of the well known American colleges are inscribed."

Students in the "luncheon room" on opening day.  New-York Tribune, September 29, 1901 (copyright expired)

The dedication ceremonies on December 5, 1901 did not go without a glitch.  Five minutes into President Butler's speech, the lights went out.  The New York Times reported, "He paused an instant, and, as the lights did not immediately flare up, he continued to talk to the listeners he could not see and who could not see him."  A slipped belt in the dynamo room was soon fixed and the electricity restored.  In his remarks, Butler noted, "For the first time in the history of universities, the child may enter the kindergarten here, and remain year after year, until he has reached the highest honors of the University."

The school's progressive nature created a somewhat unwelcoming audience for German playwright Ludwig Fulda on February 26, 1906.  He was here to give a lecture on modern literature and theater.  His decidedly 19th century views on feminism fell flat with the female students.

He derided, according to The New York Times, the fact that modern women's attitudes were influencing current writing and art.  "The modern woman thought she had descended from the clouds and graced the earth with her presence," he said.  The article reported that he decried the results of this influence.  "The playwright felt that it was necessary to make woman the most important feature.  The heroine was now more discussed than the hero.  In modern art women played the first fiddle, man the second.  This had so influenced the art of to-day that it had become erotic."   The New York Times said, "he tossed off statement after statement that appeared to ruffle the feelings of some of the women present."

A postcard from the 1920's depicted the substantial building.

In the spring of 1908, with Edwardian female fashions becoming what one critic called "frights," the principal of  the Horace Mann School, Virgil Prettyman, made a decision: the female students would wear uniforms of a sort.  On May 3, The New York Times said sarcastically, "We sympathize with the young ladies of the Horace Mann School who are to be deprived of the privilege of wearing puffs, big hats, high-heeled shoes, and spectacular waists until their education is finished."  The editorial, more seriously, added "We are passing through an era of extravagant styles in woman's dress, and these young ladies will be glad to remember, later in life, that they were never so vulgar as to wear 'Merry Widow hats' and 'Lotta Faust collars.'"

On May 4, 1913 the trustees of Columbia University opted to discontinue the experiment of a coeducational school.  The New York Times reported that new buildings would be erected on property owned by the university opposite Van Cortlandt Park.   Once again Howells & Stokes and Edgar H. Josselyn were commissioned to design the building, this one at 246th Street and Broadway.  The Real Estate Record & Guide noted on August 13, 1913, "There will be several additional class buildings and a faculty building."

The boys relocated to the new location the following year.  In August 1914, as the new school term approached, the principal of the girls' school, Henry Carr Pearson, explained its mission to a reporter from the New-York Tribune.  Its progressive stance remained unchanged.  He said in part:

Our ideal or aim is to fit girls for citizenship and for social service.  We believe that it is a primary principle that each girl under our charge should have a mind so well equipped that it shall be a storehouse containing all the information necessary to enable her to fill any niche in life.

The kindergarten and elementary course extended six years, as did the high school course.  An advertisement on September 11, 1915 listed, "college preparation, household arts, fine arts, outdoor recreation, swimming, large gymnasium and laboratories."

The girls assembled in the auditorium on April 15, 1921 to hear another German lecturer--one who was much more warmly received than Ludwig Fulda had been.  Professor Albert Einstein gave his first lecture in the United States concerning his theory of relativity here.  The New York Times wrote, "He spoke in German, but those anxious to see and hear the man who has contributed a new theory of space and time and motion to scientific conceptions of the university, filled every seat and stood in the aisles."

Progressive methods continued to be the defining force at the Horace Mann School.  On May 9, 1926, for instance, The New York Times reported on the new math being taught here.  "At the Horace Mann School of Teachers College, one has only to see in operation this arithmetic class under Professor Clifford B. Upton, or perhaps a group in geometry let by Professor William D. Reeve, to be convinced that mathematics is no longer regarded as a completed body of facts, the same yesterday, today and forever."

On January 23, 1927, in reporting on the school's anniversary, a writer from The New York Times commented, "The Horace Mann School, which forty years ago with four children and two teachers made the daring experiment of combining classical and manual training, has always been a progressive education pioneer."  

Those ideals were exemplified the following year when 80 typewriters were provided to the elementary grades--a move as forward-thinking as providing laptops to classrooms a decade ago.  It had never been attempted before in the country.  On December 10, 1928 principal Dr. Rollo G. Reynolds told a reporter from The New York Times that "pupils of five and six years of age are already leaning to manipulate the new machines and have taken unusual interest in them, spending much of their time in keyboard practice."

On January 25, 1931 The New York Times noted, "Typewriters are regular equipment at Horace Mann School. 

Another innovation in teaching came the next month.  In January 1929 students from 5 to 14 years old gathered in the auditorium once a week to watch the newsreels of the current week.  Back in their classes, "these new events were discussed in connection with geography, history, physical education, household arts and allied subjects," according to The New York Times.

Rollo G. Reynolds, principal of the school, wrote an article for The New York Times, which was published on January 25, 1931.  In it he explained that the Horace Mann School, unlike most institutions across the nation, trained students for the machine age, and took advantage of modern technology.  By now typewriters were "present in every class room in considerable numbers."  The school had acquired a considerable library of educational films.  "With these in the class room the children can study the events of history, the story of coal, the achievement of science."  And he anticipated further advancements that could be used for educational purposes.

"Television, the scientists tell us, is just around the corner.  If one allows one's imagination a bit of play it is possible to conceive, for example, that geography of the schools of tomorrow quite different from words in a book.  Children may be able to sit in their class room seats and actually see the rushing Niagara and hear its roar."

Each year in February the Horace Mann School held a Father's Day event, during which the parents of students sat through classes, were given presentations, and joined in activities.  The Fathers' Day events of February 13, 1939 had one parent who stood out.  Mayor Fiorello La Guardia's two children, 11-year-old Jean and 9-year-old Eric were both students.  The mayor and his wife heard Jean read an essay titled "Snowy Saves the Day" and a self-composed poem "An Evening Thought."  La Guardia "joined whole-heatedly in playing 'Snatch the Club' against a team of youngsters, whose superior speed and agility easily defeated the parents," said The New York Times.  

As he and his wife left the school with their children for lunch, a reporter asked his reactions to the events.  "It's nice to see your children in action," he replied.  "And it's nice to see them behaving for a change."

In 1940, with much protest from parents, the Horace Mann High School for Girls merged with the Lincoln School and six years later the combined institution closed.  The hulking Broadway building became Horace Mann Hall, home to several Columbia departments, such as the Teachers College Drama Workshop.

photograph by Matthew X. Kiernan

Following a renovation completed in 1983, the former school building houses a library and offices.  From the street, the building is remarkably unchanged since its opening in 1901.

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