The owls that adorn New York school buildings

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a progressive-minded New York embarked on a great mission to construct school buildings.

Under the direction of the superintendent of school buildings C.B.J. Snyder, hundreds of schools went up in neighborhoods all across the newly consolidated city.

Snyder thought of schools as civic monuments, and he designed them so they maximized sunlight and ventilation and inspired kids to learn.

I don’t know if these were part of Snyder’s plans, but so many of the schools built around this time feature owls on the facade—classical symbols of knowledge and wisdom, like this owl outside an elementary school in the East Village, the former PS 61.

Owls can be found adorning all kinds of city buildings, not just schools. Some owls even reside in city parks.

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7 Responses to “The owls that adorn New York school buildings”

  1. Penelope Bianchi Says:

    Thank you for this wonderful post. What a brilliant man. What brilliant thinking! Where are these people today?
    What a wonderful thing. And thank you so much for showing us! Owls are beautiful; and such a symbol for wisdom!
    The smartest person I have ever worked for as a decorator, Charlie Munger, and his wife, loved owls. We put many in his houses. In a subtle way; of course. I have owls near my house. I adore them!

  2. burkemblog Says:

    These schools remind me of the many William B. Ittner-designed schools in St. Louis, many of which are still in use. His St Louis schools were all built between 1893 and 1901, when he was school superintendent. His other buildings are found across the nation. he died in 1934, I think. The Ittner firm is still in the school design business.

  3. petey Says:

    my old h.s. has an owl prominently displayed in the quadrangle and is the school mascot.

  4. Susie Says:

    This is great! The thoughts that went into ornamentation are so interesting. But of course owls for schools!

  5. Zoé Says:

    For some peoples of the world owls are bad ‘luck’ because they symbolise serious illness/death/war etc. (Inc. Palestinians / Lebanese / Syrians / some Indigenous American Nations / Eastern Europeans etc.).

    In Arab belief they are believed to be Jinn. Or the Jinn can shapeshift into them. (As Jinn can take the form of other things/animals/humans as well. Which I think is also a belief regarding owls amongst some Indigenous Americans… the shapeshifting into them… ).

    We had one in our back garden/wood behind our house (one hour northeast of NYC). It was probably more than one over the years – but I thought of it as one… lol. (I’m not sure how long their lifespan can be).

    I used to love the sound of its distinctive call as soon as the Sun went down. I was very lucky to see it perched on a branch very near our house in the middle of the day (once?) – where I observed it turn its head nearly backwards. An amazing sight which I still remember perfectly!

    Normally they don’t show themselves in daylight – but it must have been a particular time in the mating season or during the time of year they feed their young (?). I’ve forgotten when they are more likely to be seen during the day & why. I think it is during that feeding & protecting the nest time. If there is an ornithologist or knowledgable birdwatcher reading this perhaps they could answer that.

  6. Tom B Says:

    Thank you C.B.J. Snyder for the wisdom and fortitude to get these schools built back then when kids actually wanted an education.

  7. David H Lippman Says:

    An NYU building has two owls that had their light-up violet eyes restored…they stand guard on Bobst Library. In my father’s day, that building had the entire entertainment facility for NYU students — a backgammon set.

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