Archive for the ‘Schools’ Category

First day of school in New York: then and now

September 5, 2016

On September 8, public schools across the city will reopen their doors after summer break.

That’s about a week earlier than opening day in 1915, when kids headed back to “elementary, high, and training schools” on September 13.


A moved-up first day isn’t the only difference between opening day in 2016 and opening day today.

In 1915, about 800,000 kids attended public school in New York City. Department of Education stats from 2015 put that number at just over a million students.


Unlike their contemporary counterparts, teachers in 1915 were not unionized. Most were female, and once they became pregnant, they were fired.

This was actually an improvement over the previous longstanding, perfectly legal practice of booting teachers once they married. That rule was challenged in court in 1904.

Openingdaynycschoolsbain1915 girls

One thing hasn’t changed: overcrowding. In 1915, school “congestion” was so bad, thousands of kids were forced to go part-time while some schools, like Morris High School in the Bronx, held two sessions a day to accommodate everyone, according to the New York Times.


Oh, and (most) kids look just as excited on opening day 1915 as they typically do at back to school time—with what look like new clothes, hair ribbons, school bags, and caps for the boys, as these Library of Congress/George Bain images reveal.

Manhattan street names on tenement corners

August 12, 2016

If there’s an actual name for these cross streets carved or affixed to the corners of some city buildings, I don’t know what it is.


But they’re fun to spot anyway. I’ve never seen one quite like this decorative sign on an otherwise unremarkable tenement at 169th Street and Broadway.


Fancy, right? This one at Horatio and Washington Streets is also a notch above the usual corner address sign, which is typically carved into the facade in a plain font.


A good example of the traditional style is this one below, worn and so faded it’s hard to see the letters, at Mott and Bleecker Streets.


I’ve heard that these street signs are up high because they were meant to be seen from elevated trains. But there were no trains running on Mott and Bleecker, or Horatio and Washington.


Or West End Avenue and 82nd Street, for that matter. This is a beauty of a sign that’s survived the elements on the circa-1895 facade of former Public School 9, now strangely called the Mickey Mantle School.

Some of my favorites are carved into tenements in the East Village. And of course, the loveliest in the city is at Hudson and Beach Streets.

Fencing team practice high over the Village

July 18, 2016

The New York University fencing team reveals a flair for the dramatic in this 1923 photo—especially the four guys on the edge of the roof beyond the railing.


I’m not sure which building this is, but on the left is the Stanford White–designed Judson Church tower. In the foggy background is an apartment building on Washington Square West/Macdougal Street under construction.

[Photo: NYU archives]

Congrats to the 1889 Yale grads from New York

June 23, 2016

It’s graduation season, so meet the 11 native New Yorkers in Yale University’s class of 1889. They’re posing at a dinner thrown in their honor at fancy restaurant Delmonico’s.


Born after the Civil War, these grads grew up in a fast-growing Gilded Age city. In four years, they’ll be facing the devastating economy of the Panic of 1893.

Apparently they were all jocks, as the dinner was “in commemoration of the victories won in recent years in rowing, base-ball, foot-ball and other athletic contests,” according to the caption.

A lovely 1855 schoolhouse in Greenwich Village

October 12, 2015

“Proper but gloomy” is how one architectural writer characterizes this Italianate brownstone building at 34 East 12th Street.


“Lovely and enchanting” might be a better description. For a long time, this 19th century beauty was covered up behind scaffolding and brown paint. Now that its facade is back in view, its history deserves a shout out too.

Schoolhouse18551920sThe building opened in 1855 as Grammar School 47. That makes it one of the oldest schoolhouses in the city, and it’s also a rare public school at the time that was reserved for girls only.

“In 1854, the year before Public School 47 was built, East 12th Street between Broadway and University Place consisted mainly of houses and stables,” according to the Landmarks Preservation Committee report, which designated it a landmark in 1998.

The city school board wanted to expand the number of schools, especially for girls. “It was the Board’s belief that ‘. . . separate schools for the sexes contributes greatly to the economy in conducting the school, and in advantages in many other respects.'”


In 1897, it became Girls’ High School, then was used by the school board in various capacities until it was given to the Police Athletic League (PAL) in 1958. The PAL organizes activities for kids to keep them out of trouble and foster better community relations.

Today it continues to belong to PAL, though the longtime sign on the entrance between the arched brownstone noting this is gone.

[Second and third images: NYPL Digital Gallery]

Back to school on the Lower East Side, 1890

September 7, 2015

Journalist and social reformer Jacob Riis took these photos of Lower East Side kids crammed into a desk-less, crowded, all-boy classroom at the Essex Market School.


This school appears to have been a public school holding classes in the Essex Street jail-court complex, which was slated for demolition in 1905.


“Indeed, the jail filled the title role in the educational cast of that day,” wrote Riis in 1902’s The Battle With the Slum.

“Its inmates were well lodged and cared for, while the sanitary authorities twice condemned the Essex Market school across the way as wholly unfit for children to be in, but failed to catch the ear of the politician who ran things unhindered.”

[Photos: MCNY Collections Portal]

Congratulations to these old New York graduates

June 8, 2015

It’s commencement season, the perfect time to look back at images of long-ago graduates posing in class photos. What in the world became of them?


The suited up boys in this 1915 photo, new graduates of P.S. 64 at 605 East Ninth Street, look like they’re going places in life.

P.S. 64 opened in 1906, not long after the consolidation of the city, a time of huge investment in new school facilities. “Organized around two courtyards, it was the first elementary school to have an auditorium with direct access to the street, allowing this structure to serve an expanded role in the community,” states the Guide to New York City Landmarks.


Brooklyn Friends is a private school in downtown Brooklyn founded in 1867. This is the class of 1943, decked out in graduation suits and gowns.


Elementary and high schools aren’t the only institutions that hold a commencement ceremony. Meet the 1885 nursing school graduates from Broad Street Hospital, formerly at the end of Broad Street.

News photographer George Bain captured this image of the graduates of the “Cripple School” on the Lower East Side’s Henry Street in 1912.


Officially known as the Crippled Children’s East Side Free School, the school intended to “provide the crippled children of the Lower East Side with facilities for securing an education and learning a trade, so that they may become self-supporting,” according to a 1920 guide.

“Workrooms maintained where older cripples fill orders for all kinds of needlework and hand stitching and paper boxes.”

A missing Brooklyn woman transfixes the city

April 27, 2015

JessieMcCannWhen 23-year-old Jessie McCann didn’t return after work to her family’s Brooklyn home on December 4, 1913, newspapers jumped on the story.

After all, Jessie’s disappearance had all the elements that would draw in readers: money, romantic intrigue, and mental illness.

The daughter of a food wholesaler who counted Mayor Ardolph Kline as a friend, Jessie lived with her family in a comfortable home at 438 East 21st Street in Flatbush (21st Street, below).

Like many privileged young women of her era, Jessie pursued work as a teacher and social worker at settlement houses.

McCannheadlinefoundNYTThe day she vanished, she left for work at the Home for Destitute Children on Sterling Place in Brooklyn . . . but never showed up.

“Miss Jessie McCann . . . is 5 foot 7 inches tall, of slender physique, weighing not more than 120 pounds,” wrote the New York Times on December 9, 1913.

“She had a light complexion with brown hair and blue eyes. . . . she wore a brown satin dress with a cutaway coat and a velvet Tam ‘o Shanter hat with an orange plume.”

And also like many of her privileged peers, she was described as having a “nervous” disposition. She suffered from “melancholia,” according to her family, and was being treated by a doctor.

 McCannflatbush21ststreetJessie’s disappearance made headlines for weeks, and the press pounced on every clue. Why was she last seen Thursday afternoon on Wall Street in Manhattan? Could she really have been spotted wandering around Zeller’s drugstore on Coney Island?

The family shot down rumors that she eloped. But a romantic angle emerged: a Columbia student came forward to say that he was Jessie’s fiance.

Her family dismissed the man’s claim, insisting that Jessie thought of men as “nuisances” and was “not of a romantic disposition.”

But police confirmed through her friends that she and the Columbia student were secretly engaged, and that he had sent her a letter the morning she vanished, telling her that they could not get married until he finished his studies in three years.


The weeks went on, detectives continued to investigate, and her family offered a $1,000 reward. Sightings of Jessie as far away as Chicago didn’t pan out.

JessieMcCannfoundheadlineNYTFinally, on January 5, the headlines changed: Jessie had been found, her body washed ashore on Coney Island.

Based on how decomposed it was, police believe she drowned the very day she went missing, a suicide victim despondent over her fiance’s postponing their marriage.

Her family insisted it had to be an accident, though they admitted “her nerves were unstrung.”

A piece of the 1830s city on West Fourth Street

January 26, 2015

In 1894, New York University tore down the 1835 Gothic Revival beauty that was the school’s main building.


This lovely structure on the east side of Washington Square had housed all of the college’s functions.

Foundersmemorialbuilding1850sFor six decades, it anchored the college community and watched the neighborhood go from posh and stylish to more bohemian and rougher around the edges.

By the 1890s, NYU had decided to move its undergraduate school to the Bronx, and the main building had outlived its usefulness.

Lucky for us, when the building met the bulldozer, NYU officials saved one architectural detail: a small spire, complete with a handful of grotesques.

Foundersmemorial2015They ceremoniously named it the Founder’s Memorial and brought it to the new Bronx campus, where it spent most of the 20th century.

But the Bronx campus was sold off in the 1970s, and NYU once again concentrated its educational offerings in Greenwich Village. When the school came back, the spire came returned as well.

Today it sits off West Fourth Street between Bobst Library and Shimkin Hall, a modest sliver of the 1830s hiding in the shadows of the modern city.

New York City’s “open-air” schools for sick kids

September 13, 2014

Despite advances in sanitation, New York City at the cusp of the 20th century was a breeding ground for illness, especially in the city’s crowded downtown slums.

Trash- and manure-filled streets combined with dark, dank tenements enabled the spread of a host of communicable illnesses, with tuberculosis among the most dreaded.

Outdoorschooljacobriis1910mcnySo education officials launched an unusual type of school for children thought to have or be predisposed to the White Plague: outside classrooms.

Holding class outside, or in an unheated indoor area with all the windows wide open, meant exposure to fresh air and light, and both were thought to combat tuberculosis.

The idea came from a German “open air” school started in 1904. Other cities adopted them, and New York’s first outdoors school launched in 1908 on an abandoned ferry.

Over the next few years, other outdoors schools opened their doors to tuberculosis kids, malnourished kids, even kids described as “nervous, irritable, or anemic.”

One school was located on Carmine Street, on top of a public baths building. Another opened at Public School 33 (which may have been on West 28th Street).


Horace Mann, the private school then in Morningside Heights, also started a rooftop school, described as “closed on three sides only, the south side being entirely open with a drop curtain to close that side in time of storm,” explains a 1914 report.

Outdoorschoolsittingoutbagbeals“The floors are made of wood. Indoor toilet rooms are provided and also an indoor room where children may go to get warm if necessary in exceptional cases.”

Kids handled the bracing weather by wrapping themselves in “sitting out bags” (right).

Well-meaning as it was, this educational movement apparently died out quickly. In 1914, the medical director of New York City’s open-air schools came out against them, citing bad weather and the expense of building truly stable structures on the roof.

“With the changeable climate of New York City, and the extremely raw weather in the winter, I am distinctly in favor of keeping classes within buildings,” he says in this 1918 book on open-air schools.


[Top three photos: Jacob Riis, 1910, MCNY Collections Portal; fourth photo: Jessie Tarbox Beals, Library of Congress; fifth photo: PS 51 “anemic classes” from the Library of Congress]