Monday, October 9, 2023

The Lost Normal College Building - Park Avenue and 68th Street


King's Photographic Views of New York City, 1893 (copyright expired)

On November 17, 1869, Irish-born Thomas Hunter founded the Female Normal and High School, a women's college for training teachers.  The name was changed a year later to The Normal College of the City of New York.  Its democratic admittance policies accepted students regardless of religion, race, financial status, or ethnicity.  Women signed up for a three-year course of liberal arts, education, and science.  The school originally operated from 694 Broadway at East Fourth Street.  

Thomas Hunted in 1872.  The Autobiography of Dr. Thomas Hunter

In May 1870, the block of land from Park to Lexington Avenues and 68th to 69th Street was provided to the college by the city.  Architect David I. Stagg won the $1,200 contest to design the building.  Stagg was well-acquainted with educational structures, and in 1872 would be appointed Superintendent of Public School Buildings for the Board of Education.

The New York Herald would describe the structure's architectural style as being "of the Elizabethan school," and The American Journal of Education would deem it, "plain Gothic."  In fact, the style was what we refer to today as English Perpendicular Gothic.  Stagg's design drew from British educational structures, its octagonal turrets and buttresses enhancing the vertical and terminating in pinnacles and finials.  The main tower was inspired by the Magdalen Tower at Oxford, and would be nearly identical to that of Joseph C. Wells's 1846 First Presbyterian Church on lower Fifth Avenue.  Faced in red Philadelphia brick laid in black mortar, the edifice would be trimmed in Quincy granite on the first floor and brownstone on the upper stories.  Construction costs were estimated at $350,000--about $8.65 million in 2023.

The cornerstone was laid on March 19, 1872.  The Annual Report of the Normal College noted, "notwithstanding the very unfavorable appearance of the weather, by twelve o'clock there were present about six hundred ladies and gentlemen."  Sealed inside the cornerstone were a large number of documents like the school's financial reports and  manual, the specifications of the building, photographs, proposals, and a set of United States coins and "fractional currency."

The day before the ceremony, the New York Herald reported, "One of the most important buildings now in course of construction in this city is the new Normal College."  The article noted, "The building will contain class rooms for 1,500 scholars, and also a large assembly hall, with capacity for 2,000 persons.  This hall will be used for lectures, general examinations, &c."

The new Normal College building opened on September 1, 1873.  The New York Times reported that on the first floor were the 51-by-71 foot "calisthenium" (Thomas Hunter proposed that every pupil "shall pass at least twenty minutes every day" in the gymnasium),  the library, and the four-room janitor's apartment.  "The President's suite of rooms and the lecture-rooms occupy the second story," said the article.  The massive, double-height assembly hall with its gallery, or balcony, encompassed the third floor and fourth floors.

Calling the assembly room "this splendid chamber," The New York Times explained, "The seats will be arranged on the floor of the hall so as to converge in rays toward the rostrum...But the chief decoration is in the ceiling, which has a grand, deep cornice, and has been carefully frescoed in somewhat too sombre-hued tones.  The effect is in good taste, though it lacks the element of cheerfulness which could have been so easily imparted."  The cavernous size of the assembly hall was suggested by its five double stairways.  The New York Times remarked, "should such a thing as a fire or an earthquake burst upon the girls when assembled in this room, it would not be difficult for them all to escape in a very short time."

A considerate amenity were the two "retiring-rooms" on each floor.  They could be used by teachers for grading papers in quiet, or "pupils, also, who may be troubled with headaches, can rest here."  In the basement was a "drying-room," where on rainy days, "cloaks, shawls, hats, bonnets, mantles, &c., may be thoroughly dried," said The New York Times.  And on those inclement days, there were "two large halls for promenading during the half-hours' recess."

To the rear can be seen the Normal College School, where prospective teachers got on-the-job training.  Scientific American, December 19, 1874 (copyright expired)

Scientific American was glowing in its review on December 19, 1874, calling the building "one of the most enduring and splendid monuments of the public school system of this country."  The article said, "It possesses great architectural beauty, and is fitted up and arranged in the most convenient and handsome manner; and eleven hundred female students daily assemble in the fine central hall, before proceeding to the rooms allotted to the different branches of study."  The 1876 New York City and How To See It flatly called Normal College "the finest building of its class in the country."

from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The new Normal College building had barely opened when it was visited by high-ranking figures.  On September 29, 1874, The New York Times reported that the Lord Mayor of Dublin was welcomed here by President Thomas Hunter.  After listening to speeches by officials and recitations by the students, The Lord Mayor did something that would have caused outrage today.  The New York Times related,

Perhaps some natural spasm which has no kinship with his usual stolidity seized the old gentleman, but certain it is that under pretense of whispering to one of the young ladies of the college, he suddenly kissed her.  The osculatory movement was prompt and decisive.

Two months later, on December 24, King Kalakana of Hawaii visited the school--albeit two hours late.  There had been a Christmas celebration planned and "a large audience had been gathered."  But, said The New York Times, "after expectation that he would come at all had been given up, in fact" most of the assemblage left.

When the king took his seat, "President Hunter stepped to his desk and tapped a bell," reported the article.  A pianist began playing a march and "the floor of the very large room, which had been previously entirely empty, was speedily occupied by the 1,000 young ladies of the college who marched to their accustomed seats with military precision and in perfect time with the music of the piano."

Students file down the main steps around the turn of the century.  from the archives of The City University of New York

Within twelve days of one another in the spring of 1883, three beloved instructors died.  On December 3, a nine-foot-tall stained glass window, created by Cottier & Co. and donated by the alumnae, was dedicated at the top of a stairway.  The central figure was Pallas Athena.  The New York Times reported, "at the foot of it are inscribed the names of the dead teachers."

There was another unexpected kissing incident perpetrated by a visitor to the school in 1888, but this time it was not on an unsuspecting student.  On November 27, Russian artist Vasily Vereschchagin addressed the senior students.  President Hunter was out of town, so Professor Arthur H. Dunden stood in for him.

Before closing, Vereschchagin said, "Young ladies, I am very greatly obliged for the honor you have given me.  You are indeed very charming, and in obedience to one of our Russian customs, I would like to salute you all individually.  But since I cannot, I will kiss Professor Dunden instead, and he will give you the kiss in my place."  Then, placing a hand on Dunden's shoulder, he "imprinted a resounding smack on his cheek."  The New York Times wrote, "the students broke forth in storms of laughter and clapping of hands, which continued several seconds despite the appeal of the Professor to the order bell."

The visits of high level figures continued, and on May 30, 1893 the Infanta Eulalie arrived.  The following day The New York Times reported, "Of the 1,900 girls in the Normal College there is now not one who has not completely lost her heart to the fair Infanta.  This complete enslavement of the college students was the work of half an hour yesterday, when the Infanta and her suite...called upon President Thomas Hunter and by him were shown the school."

On April 6, 1904, the New-York Tribune reported on rumors that Thomas Hunter was being replaced by Professor Odell of Columbia University.  "Dr. Hunter, however, declares that he has no intention of retiring," said the article.  The educator was 73 years old at the time.

E. C. Hunt took this photograph in 1905.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Two years later, however, after 37 years of service, Thomas Hunter stepped down during the 1906 graduation ceremonies.  The New York Times remarked, "His farewell was impressive, and included tributes from his former pupils."

A push to rename the school Hunter College of the City of New York by alumnae was well underway in 1910.  A group called the Committee on College Names of the Associate Alumnae of Normal College was formed.  The School Board adamantly opposed the change, however.  It was not until March 26, 1914 that The New York Times reported that the "Trustees of the Normal College decided yesterday to change its name to Hunter College in honor of Thomas Hunter, its President from 1870 to 1906."

In November 1925, The New York Times reported on the concerning overcrowding of Hunter College, and two years later, on May 9, 1927, announced that a site had been selected for a new campus.  Work began on the 37-acred Bronx complex in 1931.  The venerable 1873 building continued to be used as an annex.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

Then, on February 14, 1936, The New York Times began an article saying, "A four-alarm fire destroyed a large part of the original building of Hunter College, on the old campus fronting on Park Avenue."  The fire had started on the second floor at 2:35 that morning.  "Fanned by a wind, and with the freezing weather impeding the firemen, the blaze gained rapid headway and spread through the Park Avenue structure."

While much of the interior was gutted, the exterior survived.  But 1936 architectural predilection leaned towards sleek Art Moderne lines rather than Victorian finials and towers.  A letter to the editor of The New York Times on February 19 said in part, "It is with unbelievable affront that we learn negotiations are on foot to attempt to patch up the old filthy, insanitary firetrap."

photograph by Gryffindor

Within a few months demolition began on the 63-year old building.  The Hunter College Library, completed in 1940, occupies the site today.

no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to

No comments:

Post a Comment