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The school was founded in 1925 as the School of Printing and later expanded to become a vocational school for high school students accepting students throughout New York City who displayed talent and interest in the graphic and communication arts. In the late 1950s, development was expanding into the suburbs and the flight of the middle-class was leaving large voids in the inner-city, especially within the realm of education. At the time of the construction of the High School of Graphic Communication Arts in 1959, different theories on education were evolving. Therefore, a modernist international style design seemed quite suitable for a revolutionary type of school - the vocational high school - that strayed from traditional methodology concerning secondary education. The choice of a modernist design was most likely in part to engage and inspire the students toward creative thinking out-of-the-box.
The seven-story school is located in the middle of the block on West 49th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. A small blacktop courtyard with basketball courts named Gutenberg Park is located immediately in front of the school. Small trees enclosed in squares by short garden fences line the sidewalk. The front facade of the school is a curtain wall of geometric squares of muted blue and gray tones. Narrow horizontal rows of functioning windows line the facade. Small rectangular air conditioning units that project out of the windows, seem to be balanced by a geometric pattern of smaller squares that dot the curtain wall. To the left, there is a contrasting rounded organic form built of tan-colored brick that houses the school auditorium.
The school includes an unusual pairing of brick masonry and steel-frame construction with a glass curtain wall facade. This combination marks the building design as innovative and memorable to its viewers.
The building located in the neighborhood of Clinton still somewhat remains amidst an effort of recovery from decades of a darker past, recalling the notoriety of what was known as "Hell's Kitchen." Yet presently, attractive rowhouses line the block across the street from the school and the surrounding stretch of Ninth Avenue continues to thrive with small restaurants and corner shops.
Clean and crisp design was essential to that of the modernist architects. The front facade of the school clearly displays this with its curtain wall design in which the load of the structure is taken on by steel frames and not supported by the walls. Yet the building also includes some brick masonry, yet it takes on a smooth organic shape, perhaps to replicate the smoothness of the glass on the accompanying curtain wall facade. The brick highly contrasts the steel and glass regarding material choice for the era of Modernism yet the materials come together in complimentary design. We see that function followed form as the auditorium is given the contrasting organic treatment, composing an altogether unique structure.
Modernism was a new approach to architecture and the vocational school was a new approach to education. In the late 1950s, the two were paired together at the HS of Graphic Communication Arts. Over the years, the school garnered a reputation for poor academic performance and violence. In the mid-1990s, the school became a magnet for gang activity. The notoriety continues into the present-day as in 2009, a student was attacked and stabbed by four other students. The graduation rate among the students is also extremely low. It seems that the new aesthetic sensibilities of the Modernist design of the school has not translated into inspiring the students towards engaged thinking and strong academics. Yet perhaps that such is a condition of the strained NYC department of education and the lack of resources within the neighborhood.
The school has a mural designed by abstract expressionist artist Hans Hoffman located at the front entrance. The mural affirms the building's place in time and representing its niche in Modern architecture as geometric shapes are meshed with round organic shapes, symbolizing students and their colorful build environment. Such Modern architectural design is an inspiring message in its aesthetic, as it was clearly meant to be. The Modern architecture of the vocational school was the vessel to which students would learn modern technologies and communication techniques to contribute to the rapidly changing world.
The school building was the first school in the city to have escalators, built in the original construction, which would be consided an innovation at the time. Yet fell to neglect and were shut down for a year in the mid-1990s, as students awaited repairs - and the funds to do so. The building can be listed among other schools in the latter half of the nineteenth century that have taken on a Modernist design as a way to attract the flow of light and creative ideas into the school.
The use of the building as a school has remained constant since 1959. The building reflected the changing attitudes and theories on education at the time it was built, when it was possible for a student to enter into a vocational trade in the graphic or communication arts upon graduation from high school. Now vocational schools do not continue to play this role but perhaps serve to give impoverished inner-city students more focus in their studies and further guidance toward an ultimate career path. The preservation of the Modernist architecture illustrated in the High School of Graphic Communication Arts is important specifically because presently, it offers the essence that this building symbolizes new ideas. The design of the high school continues to symbolize its attempts to be on the cutting edge of communication technologies. That is the purpose that the vocational school had originally intended - to grant young high school students advanced knowledge of their chosen field. Here in theory and design of the HSGCA, architecture and young minds are at the forefront of industry.