New York City’s oldest public school is in this 1867 building in Greenpoint

With its red brick facade, ornate entryway, and cathedral-like windows, Public School 34 in Greenpoint is a Romanesque Revival-style beauty.

But this elementary school that truly looks like a school also makes history.

Built in 1867 on Norman Avenue two years after the Civil War ended and President Lincoln was assassinated, it’s one of the oldest, and by some claims the oldest, public school building in New York City that’s still in use today.

Also called the Oliver H. Perry School—after the naval officer who helped defeat the British during the War of 1812—the building (below, in 1931) is rumored to have done a stint as a Civil War hospital.

“Walking inside the buildings long hallways, they certainly have the feel of hospital wards,” stated Geoff Cobb, a writer at Greenpointers.com, in 2016. “There are no four-walled classrooms, instead the long ward like halls have been divided up, but it is not hard to imagine that the building was once filled with wounded union soldiers.”

The Landmarks Preservation Commission report that designates PS 34 a historical landmark doesn’t mention a hospital, though. Instead, it calls out the architectural loveliness of the school, as well as that it was built to serve a recently urbanized Greenpoint thanks to the booming shipbuilding industry along the East River.

It’s not a surprise that Brooklyn maintains such an early school building; the borough—which of course was a separate city at the time—was an educational leader back in the 19th century.

“Public education began in Brooklyn in 1816 and by the late 19th century had grown to the point that Brooklyn had one of the most extensive public education systems in the country,” wrote Andrew Dolkart in Guide to New York City Landmarks.

Today, PS 34 is a neighborhood school with a Polish-English dual language program, a reflection of the Polish immigrant community in Greenpoint. The site Brooklyn Relics has more gorgeous photos.

[Top photo: Wikipedia; second photo: NYPL; third and fourth photos: Brooklynrelics]

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3 Responses to “New York City’s oldest public school is in this 1867 building in Greenpoint”

  1. GhostBikeCollector Says:

    The story about P.S. 34’s use as a hospital, along with the one that Abe Lincoln visited it, are just oft repeated neighborhood urban myths and nothing more. Geoff Cobb, contrary to him being considered a historian of Greenpoint,, plays loose with his information which, at times, is just plain wrong. He has posted many factually incorrect articles about the neighborhood in the past. This is another instance where his lack of proper research is clearly evident. I posted the following in the Greenpoint Natives FB page in 2018 in response to numerous members’ comments on this:

    “First of all, P.S. 34 was designed by famed school architect Samuel B. Leonard and constructed in 1867. The date is clearly visible above the main entrance.

    Secondly, the Civil War ended two years before the school was built; therefore, it couldn’t have been used as a hospital for Union soldiers. Also, to quote from the official Veterans’ Administration history:
    “After the end of the American Civil War in 1865, many state veterans’ homes were established. Since domiciliary care was available at all state veterans homes, incidental medical and hospital treatment was provided for all injuries and diseases, whether or not of service origin. Indigent and disabled veterans of the Civil War, Indian Wars, Spanish–American War, and Mexican Border period as well as discharged regular members of the Armed Forces were cared for at these homes.”

    Therefore, there was no need to commandeer, or appropriate, any building, especially one that didn’t exist at the time, for use as a military hospital. And no, as someone on a now defunct Greenpoint FB page swore was true, Abraham Lincoln never visited the school. He visited Brooklyn only one time and that was on Sunday February 26th, 1860 at the invitation of Henry Ward Beecher to hear a sermon at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights.

    An interesting side note:
    P.S. 34 has a twin. It is MS 340 located at 227 Sterling Place in Prospect Heights. Samuel Leonard was responsible for its construction, also in 1867. It was originally P.S. 9, later P.S. 111.”

    I’ve actually posted this information many times since 2010 because folks like to parrot the same story. They prefer to believe old, unsubstantiated local rumors and urban legends rather than historical facts, even when they were disproven.and shown to be pure bunk.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks for all the backstory. I wanted to find evidence for the Civil War hospital story, but nothing turned up. If it’s not in the LPC report then it’s just a good rumor.

  2. petlover1948 Says:

    P.S. 66 Q; in Richmond Hill, Queens is also a very old, landmarked school.

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