Archive for the ‘Schools’ Category

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]

High-school girls in 1910 celebrate Midsummer

June 23, 2014

New Yorkers in 2014 enjoyed the summer solstice by going to the Mermaid Parade, testing out the new roller coaster at Coney Island, and cruising on Citibikes.

In the 1910s, they did it by reviving an ancient holiday most commonly celebrated in northern Europe: Midsummer’s Day.

Midsummersdayfestival1911The idea of bringing back this once-popular summer event—a festival of food, dancing, and maypoles—began with a group of students from all-female Washington Irving High School on 15th Street and Irving Place.

WilliamgaynormayorThey decided that Midsummer’s Day should be celebrated in the modern city with a traditional folk festival, with Mayor William J. Gaynor (left) in attendance.

According to a New York Times article, six girls sent and signed this very fanciful, slightly hippie-ish letter to Mayor Gaynor:

“Whereas the great family known as the City of New York should, like other happy families, take part in the joys of its daughters, you, the honored father of the city, are advised that your girls are minded to meet you in the family garden, Pelham Bay Park, June 24, 1910, and to pay you filial respect, to entertain you with songs and games, and otherwise celebrate our family loyalty.”

MidsummerdayfestivalrelayMayor Gaynor, impressed with the idea, promised to bring his wife and enjoy a luncheon on the grass in the Bronx with 2,000 Washington Irving students, alumni, and family members.

After eating, a Midsummer procession was to occur. “Competitive songs and dances will follow, with the ancient midsummer torch race and other traditional games,” the Times wrote.


I couldn’t find an account of how the Midsummer Day festival went off. And unfortunately, when it came time to do it again in 1911, the Mayor didn’t show, according to a 1911 Times article.

But thousands of Washington Irving girls did. These photos, from the Bain Collection of the Library of Congress, are from the June 24, 1911 festival.

A beautiful Village garden on top of a garage

May 5, 2014

WashsquarevillagewikiThe four “superblock” apartment buildings collectively known as Washington Square Village received little love from the surrounding Greenwich Village neighborhood when they opened in 1959.

But Sasaki Garden, the one-and-a-half acre greenspace designed within the four buildings and on top of the complex’s sublevel parking garage, scored a better reception.


And no wonder, thanks to the walkways and benches that wind around an incredible variety of plants and trees: crabapple trees (and their beautiful blossoms), Japanese maples, dogwoods, maples, even a weeping willow.

Sasakigarden3Designed by Modernist landscape architect Hideo Sasaki, it was and remains still an expansive oasis of quiet and loveliness in the middle of crowded Bleecker and West Third Streets.

The slab-like buildings are like fortresses hiding a treasure within their walls.

You can’t really experience its beauty unless you take a walk through it—which the general public might technically be allowed to do, as no sign says it’s for residents only.

Go now, while the pillowy pink and white blossoms are still out, because Sasaki Garden may not be around much longer.


New York University bought Washington Square Village in the early 1960s; faculty and grad students occupy the apartments.

Yet NYU’s 2031 expansion plan calls for towering new buildings to cut into the garden and disrupt the original design. (The plan is currently on hold thanks to a recent legal decision.)

New York’s high-school student strike of 1950

March 24, 2014

StudentstrikebrooklynpubliclibraryIt all started with a proposed teacher pay raise.

In 1950, New York City high school teachers called on Mayor William O’Dwyer to increase their 2-5K yearly salaries by $600.

O’Dwyer balked, offering no more than $200. In response, teachers stopped supervising extracurricular activities. So O’Dwyer’s administration suspended sport teams, clubs, and other school groups.

With their extracurriculars gone, students were angry.

To protest O’Dwyer, they staged a student strike over three days in late April, ditching their morning classes or not showing up at all.

SchoolstrikeheadlineInstead, thousands of high-school kids (mostly from Brooklyn) marched to City Hall in Lower Manhattan, with the number of strikers swelling on the third day.

“Carrying banners on which their pro-teacher sentiments were scrawled in lipstick, they held up subway trains, wrecked automobiles, and dared police to break them up and were prevented only by hasty police action from forcing their way into the office of Mayor O’Dwyer, who had refused to discuss higher salaries,” wrote Life on May 8.


Of the strikers, The New York Times reported, “The vast majority of the youngsters were laughing and good-natured, and moved when they were asked. A few tried to stand their ground and spoke sharply to the police about ‘democracy’ and ‘people’s rights.'”

Studentstrikelifemagazine2By that third afternoon, the police had cleared out the students, and most returned to class the next morning.

School officials claimed the strikes were organized by “subversive elements,” according to Life. The teachers insisted they had nothing to do with it and denounced the striking students.

Was it worth it? Well, it took another 18 months for the city and the teachers to reach a pay compromise, and extracurriculars didn’t resume until September 1951, according to an excellent piece on the strike from Brooklynology.

[Top photo: Brooklynology/Brooklyn Public Library; Life magazine]

Old Brooklyn’s adorable schoolyard gardeners

March 22, 2014

The whole farm-to-table food movement? It’s not as new to affluent Brooklyn as you’d think.

In 1905, this group of young, sun-protected (look at those wide-brimmed hats and bonnets!) residents posed next to their wheelbarrows and watering cans in their backyard school garden.


They were enrolled in the kindergarten at Pratt Institute in Clinton Hill, which apparently had a little plot of land to help these city kids learn about dirt, seeds, and growing their own food.

Life in a New York University dorm in 1897

January 30, 2014

Today’s NYU students have an array of university housing options available to them. In 1897, dorm options were probably more limited.


This 1897 photo shows the inside of a dorm room at the old University Heights campus in the Bronx, personalized with a horseshoe . . . and boxing gloves? One student is trying to study, the other appears to be playing music . . . college life hasn’t changed.

The caption to the photo, from this fascinating NYU history website, states: “The earliest evidence of university housing is an 1840 list of six students residing in the old University Building on Washington Square.”

NYU had fraternities back then too. Here, some 1890s bros smoke pipes and do bong hits.


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