Mid-Century Modern Schools in Manhattan

By: Erica Mollon

Unlike suburban schools, the public schools constructed in the years following World War II in Manhattan were designed to accommodate the specific challenges and needs of the urban environment. These schools, now of preservation age, continue to be underappreciated resources. 

Photo: JHS 22 Gustave Straubenmuller, Kelly & Gruzen, 1955-59, credit: Tianchi Yang

 

During the spring semester of 2013, seven students in the Historic Preservation Studio at the Columbia University School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation undertook a comprehensive survey to document and analyze the eighty-eight public schools built in Manhattan in the thirty years after World War II. The survey produced data on a diverse range of schools that proved to vary in significance; each however shed light on the history of post-war urban education in New York City. Additionally the survey yielded useful information on the conservation issues faced by these schools, which were often built using a combination of traditional materials and construction techniques and new materials and methods developed during and after World War II. Due to their dates of construction, many of Manhattan’s post-war public schools have become eligible for both local and national level designation. The timing is right for action, yet these buildings tend to be widely ignored or underappreciated by the public. The hope is that the survey and contextual research developed around Manhattan’s stock of post-war public schools will serve as a starting point for a more comprehensive study of all the public schools built in this time period in New York City.
 
Photo (right): PS 34 Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harrison & Abramowitz, 1953-55, credit: Tianchi Yang

The post-war wave of public school construction in Manhattan largely parallels school construction programs throughout the United States, but the reasons for this new construction were different in New York. Across the United States school building programs sought to provide adequate classroom space for the seemingly ever-increasing student body of the post-war baby boom. In Manhattan, the population of school-aged children only marginally increased and the construction boom was more indicative of a shifting population and issues of providing quality education to underserved communities. Ensuring an investment in both ethnically diverse communities and poorer neighborhoods was evident by the strategic number of schools built and the architects chosen for projects in particular areas of the city.

 
In New York City, the public schools built in the post-war period offered an opportunity for the Board of Education to test new progressive educational theories that had first developed before the war. The eighty-eight schools surveyed represent the work of a variety of architects and a continuum of twentieth century architectural styles. Throughout the post-war period schools were continually designed in-house by Eric Kebbon, Michael Radoslovich and Arthur Paletta, the three consecutive architects of the Board of Education. Beginning in the 1950s, however, private architectural firms began completing work for the Board of Education in part to alleviate an increased workload but more importantly to expand design ideas. The contributing firms represented both locally significant architects like Kelly & Gruzen and those of national significance like Harrison & Abramowitz.
 
Photo (left): PS 199 Jesse Isador Straus, Edward Durell Stone, 1960-63, credit: Rachel Levy
 
The validity and necessity of the survey became apparent during the course of the project as deferred maintenance, poor repair work and threats of demolition were discovered.  At the center of city-led development opportunities, PS 199 Jesse Isadore Straus (270 West 70th Street, architect Edward Durell Stone, 1960-63) and PS 191 Amsterdam School (210 West 61st Street, architect William Gehron, 1952-55) were at risk of being demolished until June 2013 when an alternate site was selected. The development proposals for each site included destroying the historic buildings and constructing residential high-rises on the same sites with new schools in the basement. These city-owned properties were not required to go through the city’s public review process, making them particularly vulnerable. Although neither school site was selected for this project, they occupy prime real estate in the heart of Lincoln Square and could be in danger of demolition again in the future, as could other schools located in areas with high real estate values. 
 
As heavily used buildings, the post-war public schools are in need of continuous maintenance and repair. The approach to these repairs must be thoughtfully undertaken so as not to alter or compromise the designs of the buildings. The experimental nature of some of the post-war materials also brings into question how to make repairs or changes to the schools as student safety is paramount. Over the past five decades a variety of approaches to the restoration, maintenance and repair work have been used. After surveying the buildings, the approach used by Nelligan White Architects in their restoration of PS 111 Adolph S. Ochs (444 W. 53rd Street, 1956-58) managed to complete the needed work while remaining faithful to Michael Radoslovich’s design. This careful process would be the ideal method.
 
Photo: PS 154 Harriet Tubman, Paul Williams, 1960-64, credit: Melissa Swanson
 
The designs of the schools reflect architectural trends of the time and vary from Neo-formalist to Brutalist; from Moderne to the International Style. These design choices reinforce the pedagogical shift that took place simultaneously that moved away from static classrooms to interactive and flexible spaces where the teacher engaged students in new ways. This style of teaching and learning are still the buzzwords today in education, and ensure that these buildings continue to be relevant.
 
While these schools are coming of age for formal preservation protection, they have been an understudied resource and their designs are often unappreciated. Hopefully, by raising awareness some level of protection for these schools can be garnered. To that end, a website has been created to highlight these schools and can be found at www.postwarschools.com. This is just the beginning of the work that needs to be done to protect these buildings, and hopefully by documenting them and initiating the advocacy efforts, other groups will be willing to step forward and continue this initiative. 
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