Friday, January 20, 2023

The 1856 Ward School No. 48 - 120-128 West 28th Street

photo by Beyond My Ken

In the decade following its organization in 1842, the New York City Board of Education turned its attention to replacing small outdated schoolhouses with modern, efficient structures.  In June 1854, as Ward School No. 47 on East 12th Street was under construction, work began on Ward School No. 48 on West 28th Street.  Both were designed by architect Thomas R. Jackson.  

As he had done for the 12th Street structure, Jackson turned to the Anglo-Italianate style for Ward School 48.  He relieved its visual heaviness by dividing the structure vertically--by projecting the midsection forward and enclosing the openings in three three-story arches--and horizontally with a prominent stone cornice above the ground floor.  Carved brownstone lintels decorated the windows and a classical triangular pediment crowned the center section.  The construction and furnishings cost the city $55,000--about $1.81 million in 2023.

The opening of the school on January 29, 1856 was a grand event.  The New York Times reported, "There was a great crowd yesterday, in the new School-house No. 48 (situated in Twenty-eighth-street), near the Sixth avenue, to witness its formal opening."  Calling it a "beautiful building," the newspaper added that it "must, of course, be a first-class affair."

The newspaper described the new school as "lofty and imposing in its external appearance."  In the rear was a playground, and the ground floor held a trustees' room, library, teachers' "reception room" (what today we would call a teachers' lounge), and an apartment for the janitor and his family.  The New York Times said the overall plan "was well considered by the architect, Mr. Jackson, and reflects much credit upon his professional taste and skill."  The article noted, "There are bells, whistles and speaking tubes connecting with each department and to the Janitor's quarters."

On the second floor was the Primary Department, consisting of eight classrooms capable of accommodating 504 students.  The Girls Department was on the third floor and the Boys Department on the fourth.  The New York Times deemed the furniture "very substantial, of a good pattern, and presents a very neat and tasteful appearance."  The children sat on long benches (or "settees") that sat eight pupils each.  Students would not only learn their fundamentals, but art and music.  Both the girls' and boys' departments had "drawing desks" and pianos.

Among the speakers at the opening was Colonel Thomas Jones Thorpe, who seems to have been brushing off the threats of impending war.  The New York Times reported, "he thought the country quite safe, and showed how much more surely its schools than its battlements made it so."  Colonel Thorpe was overly-optimistic.

With New York fathers and husbands fighting in the South, the students of Ward School No. 48 contributed to their relief.  On June 29, 1862, the Sunday Dispatch reported, "A grand concert by the pupils of the 20th Ward grammar school will be given for the benefit of the widows and orphans of soldiers, at the Academy of Music, on Wednesday, July 2, 1862.  His Honor, the Mayor, will preside."  And on the same day, The New York Times reported:

While Churches and associations are providing for the wounded in our hospitals, and the benevolent of both sexes are giving their time and means in alleviating the sufferings of the noble defenders of our country, the teachers and pupils of some of the New-York Public Schools are doing 'what they can' for the cause.  Ward School No. 48, under the charge of Jas. H. Partridge, Esq., recently made its first contribution to the wounded soldiers.

The Lying In Asylum at 51st Street and Lexington Avenue had been converted for the treatment of wounded soldiers.  The children had amassed donations of "hospital shirts, linen lint, garments of every description, liniments, tea, coffee, farina, sugar, jellies, &c., &c." which filled three large wagons, as well as money.  The article continued, "When the children visited the sufferers--saw some of the terrible realities of war, and received the thanks of those noble sons of Union--they exclaimed, with tearful eyes, truly, 'it is more blessed to give than to receive.'"

Graduation ceremonies in the 19th century entailed more than the mere acceptance of a diploma.  Graduates were expected to display their accomplishments to parents and guests.  On July 1, 1865, the New York Herald reported, "The exercises, which were of a very interesting character, consisted of declamations, the reading of prose and poetical compositions by the lady students, music and addresses by several gentlemen.  The attendance was numerous."

The installation of new principals was, as well, a significant affair.  On February 1, 1869, M. Louise Clawson was made principal of the Girls' Department.  She was described as "a good disciplinarian, and is the youngest principal in the City."  The New York Times reported, "The ceremony was largely attended, and there was a number of distinguished literary and scientific gentlemen present, among whom were two Professors from Columbia College."  Speeches were made by the president of the Board of Education and several others.  At the time, there were about 500 students in the Girls' Department which was, according to The New York Times, "mentioned as one of the finest girls' schools in the City."

In 1878 the conditions within the building had deteriorated.  An inspection by the Board of Health resulted in a report, issued on May 27.  Some of the findings were easily remedied, like the clogged sidewalk gratings that prevented fresh air to circulate.  Others were greatly disturbing.  The building was lighted, of course, by gas.  "In one of the class-rooms," reported The New York Times, "there was a leakage of gas from a defective pipe, and it was stated that the leakage had existed since the last vacation.  In another of the class-rooms on the third floor, used for instruction in writing, the light is inadequate, and its continued use for that purpose will tend to seriously impair the sight of the pupils."

One finding concerned the outhouses in the rear of the building.  Their vents "terminate at the windows of the class-rooms on the second floor, and discharge foul and deleterious odors when the windows are open."  The city made the necessary repairs.

In 1881 grade school boys no longer attended the school, now known as Grammar School No. 48.  There were 447 girls enrolled here and a total of 754 children in the Primary Department.  M. Louise Clawson was earning $1,600 per year as principal of the Girls' Department (about $43,700 today).

The building got a significant upgrade in 1888 when the city set aside more than $100,000 in today's terms for new "fire-proof stairs, floors. etc."

The schoolgirls were treated to a celebrity visit in May 1914.   Mae Murray had begun her career on Broadway with dancer Vernon Castle in 1906.  In 1908 she joined the Ziegfeld Follies, soon becoming an audience favorite.  

Actress, dancer and producer Mae Murray.  Photoplay magazine, August 1916 (copyright expired)

On May 14, 1914, the New York Sun reported, "Mae Murray, who is directing the programme at the Folies Marigny, atop the Forty-fourth Street Theatre, will appear in several classic dances this afternoon at Public School 48, 124 West Twenty-eighth street."

Following World War I the building was converted to offices for the state officials.  The 1924 Our City--New York, A Text-Book in City Government explained, "There is a State Department of Labor, at the head of which is the Industrial Commissioner and the Industrial Board of three members, all of whom are appointed by the Governor...An office is maintained by the Commissioner and Board in this City at 124 West Twenty-eighth Street, Manhattan."

By 1933 the lintels had already been shaved off.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library

The third quarter of the 20th century saw significant change to the neighborhood, now the center of the Flower District.  The former school building was converted to performance space by 1975 when the Impossible Rag Time Theatre presented plays for children here.   The Greek Theater opened in the building in 1981 as did the 28th Street Playhouse.  The Actors Outlet Theater II operated here by 1983, followed by the Stages Arts Theater Company in 1987.

On December 4, 1987, The New York Times theater critic Walter Goodman commented, "Show your visitors you don't have to be Broadway bound or in bondage to a bank to enjoy a New York musical."  He suggested $20 tickets to Romance, Romance at the Actors Outlet.  "Moreover, if you drive up a few minutes before 6 P.M., when street parking becomes legal, you can leave the car at the theater's doorstep and take in the charms of Chelsea."

In the summer of 1988 Tada Theater opened, and in the first years of the 21st century the MCC Theatre was here.  It staged the moving production A Letter From Ethel Kennedy in May 2002, a drama by Christopher Gorman about an upper-middle-class gay man dying of AIDS.

image via

Ward School No. 48 is one of the three oldest surviving public school buildings in Manhattan.  And despite its several incarnations, a coat of paint and the unfortunate loss of the carved exterior detailing, it retains the architectural dignity  of Thomas R. Jackson's 1854 design.

many thanks to Lawrence Frommer for suggesting this post
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