Five story private school
The Calhoun School is a six story glass, travertine, and concrete building. With a footprint of 97' x 79', the original building contains 42,530 square feet. The entrance to the building is on West 81st Street. The ground floor exterior is a curtain wall of flat glass with concrete columns set back approximately ten feet from the sidewalk. On the first floor, the overhang of the second floor creates a covered, wraparound terrace with a black granite base, raised from the street level and separated from the sidewalk by a fence. The ground floor interior is open on the side of West End Avenue and used as library where students look directly onto the street slightly below them. Orb light fixtures recede into space behind the tinted glass façade. Above the ground floor is the building’s most distinguishing feature: four floors with brown-tinted glass curtain walls that bow outwards, framed by travertine cladding that arches on the inside to form a frame on four sides. The setback of the ground floor creates a dark shadow and the box-like upper floors appear to hover above the sidewalk. This gives the building the appearance of a 1960s-era television set to which it is often compared. The framing gives the façade a symmetrical appearance, though the West End Avenue façade, with thirty-two bays, is one quarter larger than the 81st Street façade with twenty-four bays. The windows are narrow and long, without distinguishable frames and separation, producing a sense of verticality. On the exterior, there are wide, metal partial string courses at the four center bays of each floor, introducing a horizontal feature to the façade. The four framed floors were once open on the interior, but they are now divided inside. Above the framed, box-like portion of the façade was a sixth floor bulkhead with mechanical equipment. The sixth floor was not visible from the street. In 2004, an expansion added four stories on top of the original structure’s frame box floors. The exterior of the expansion is taupe stucco that complements the travertine cladding of the original upper stories.
The original structure was made of a reinforced concrete frame with façades of travertine marble cladding and large curved windows of bronze-tinted plate glass. On the ground floor, the concrete columns are recessed beneath the overhang of the travertine-clad box. At grade, the wrap-around terrace has a black granite base.
Prior to the construction of the Costas Machlouzarides building, The Calhoun School debated merging with other schools or moving its location to the suburbs. Historically, the school was located in 1880s townhouses like the ones that surround the current building. In the 1970s, the West Side seemed to be declining. Weighing its options, the school’s board decided to stay on the West Side, pledging, “We believe in the West Side; we feel that once more this is the coming place, this is where the future is. We feel that the presence of the school is a necessary factor in revitalizing the area.” Furthermore, the board was committed to educating their students to be denizens of New York City, recognizing that “Most of them are going to end up here, and how are they going to be able to cope if they’ve been educated in the suburbs?”
In his design, Machlouzarides addressed the commitment to create an urban learning environment and the school’s unique teaching philosophy and systems. The headmaster, Eugene D. Ruth Jr., described the educational program as learner-centered, with the school accommodating itself to each child’s learning style. The building was designed to accommodate the school’s open-space teaching methodology. Originally, there were no corridors on the interior in order to create a unified design free from confining boundaries. Curving interior walls defined spaces, but there were no enclosed classrooms. The lack of corridors resulted in construction savings, a better utilization of floor space, and easier maintenance. The students could be less confined, but easier to supervise.
The unique exterior of the building resulted from Machlouzarides’s desire to create a space that did not look like a typical office building of the era. The curvilinear design continues to be a stark contrast to the surrounding pre-war apartment buildings and 1880s row houses.
The building is made of a reinforced concrete frame with façades of travertine marble cladding and large curved windows of bronze-tinted plate glass. At grade, the wrap-around terrace has a black granite base. The four-story addition from the twenty-first century has a stucco exterior, chosen to keep the sun out of students’ eyes.
In all material and technical choices, The Calhoun School is representative of its time. The open and flexible interior space, though innovative for the design of a school, was typical of office buildings of the time. As a stone cladding, travertine was extremely popular in the 1960s and 1970s. The travertine exterior of The Calhoun School fits within the trends of its time Lincoln Center, a complex of five travertine-clad buildings by five different architects, is only fifteen blocks south of the school, and must have been influential on Machlouzarides’ choice of material. The Calhoun School is interesting because its first floor does not contain any exterior travertine. Whether for budgetary or design reasons, travertine is used only for the multi-story exterior frame. At the ground floor, columns are concrete and exterior walls are glass. The ground floor is dark, while the upper stories appear to hover. Lighter-colored travertine-clad columns at the ground floor would hinder this visual effect.
In 1962, architect Costas Machlouzarides became a founding member of Agbany, the Action Group for Better Architecture in New York, a radical social action group that was part of the Penn Station preservation effort. The group included Peter Samton, Jordan Gruzen, Norval White, Diana Goldstein, and Norman Jeffe. They wrote letters, circulated petitions, and picketed the station, inciting popular support for the unprecedented act of preserving a large commercial structure in New York City. An advertisement in the New York Times stated that their goal was “to serve notice on present and future would-be vandals, that we will fight them every step of the way.” Social activism distanced them from other preservation groups that did not want to alienate the upper classes. Prior to The Calhoun School, Machlouzarides designed the Sierra Leone Pavilion (1962) for the 1964 New York World’s Fair; Church of the Crucifixion (1967) at 149th and Convent Avenue; and The Greater Refuge Temple (1965) at 124th Street and 7th Avenue.
As a highly stylized modernist building, the Calhoun School maintains a quality of uniqueness in the array of Manhattan’s architecture. Before The Calhoun School opened for students, critics in the New York Times called the Modern building “architecturally flamboyant.” Paul Goldberger, of the Times, was a particularly harsh critic, saying that the building’s arbitrary form “reflects all of the silly exhibitionism that one had hoped was beginning to disappear from American Architecture.” In the AIA Guide to New York City, Norval White and Elliot Willensky note, “A more subtle and out-of-scale response to this urban design challenge is hard to imagine.” A quarter century after its opening, Christopher Gray diplomatically noted that Machlouzarides’s original building was “one of the most unusual structures in New York”. Though the form and façade drew significant criticism, the interior of the building drew positive attention. From the inside, Goldberger praised the curtain wall of brown-tinted windows as an excellent was of using architecture to teach the students that school is not a place cut off from the world. In the 1970s a movement began in educational architecture to accommodate new teaching methods with open and flexible buildings instead of traditional school forms. The Calhoun School, with its open interior, designed to accommodate the learner-centered curriculum, is an excellent example of this trend.
The historic 1880s row houses and early 1900s apartment buildings around The Calhoun School continue to set the school in sharp contrast with its surroundings. In the cultural and aesthetic reception of the structure, it is clear that the building was never critically acclaimed from the exterior and is noteworthy for its absurd quality and ability to continue to distinguish itself as odd after more than a quarter century. A 1995 article described the building as “a striking modern building that resembles a television set,” the exact same unfavorable comparison the building received when it was first constructed.
In August 2007, following the addition of four stories by the firm FX Fowle, the expanded structure received the Merit Award from DesignShare, an organization specializing in innovative educational design. The organization cited the addition of the green rooftop learning center as the reason for the award.
The four story stucco addition, completed in 2004, significantly altered the cohesive visual statement of Machlouzarides’s 1975 building. The façade was unified and contained in its travertine frame. As a form, the building never received critical praise. However, it remains a unique and memorable building in New York City. The use of travertine demonstrates the influence of Lincoln Center, but also the prolific use of the material during this time. Machlouzarides approached this common material with a unique flight of the imagination, creating a stylistically innovative counter-statement to the box-like precision of other architectural statements in travertine cladding and glass curtain walls. As an architectural statement, the hovering quality of the upper, box-framed stories, achieved through the setback of the first floor, dominated its streetscape and distinguished the entire building as something set apart and different. The building does not immediately identify itself as a school. It is a 1970s modernist structure first and an educational building second. However, many of the qualities of the original design are lost with the 2004 addition. After the four story addition in 2004, the building no longer appears to be a hovering structure. The mass of the stucco addition removes the floating-box element that gave Machlouzarides’s original design its precise visual statement. It now appears to be a stack of unrelated parts, divided by materials and forms. Ironically, the award for innovative educational design followed the addition, not Machlouzarides’s unusual open space plan in the original structure.
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