Facing both 148th Street and 147th Street in Harlem, mid-block between Frederick Douglass and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevards, is a majestic building built in 1906 as Public School 90 and recently converted into 54 market rate condos and 20 middle-income apartments. Earlier this month, the National Dance Institute (NDI), a non-profit that provides free dance instruction to 40,000 students in New York City public schools every year, announced it was moving to an 18,000 square foot “Center for Learning and The Arts” at the PS90 building, which means NDI will, for the first time in its 34-year history, have studio space of its own. And just last week, Curtis + Ginsberg Architects, the design firm responsible for the conversion, shared the Lucy Moses Prize with the rest of the PS90 design and development team*. The New York Landmarks Conservancy bestows this prize to honor excellence in historic preservation.
As a model of adaptive reuse, PS90 demonstrates that good bones can make for successful surgery. Coverage of the conversion on Curbed makes repeated references to the gargoyles that adorn the roof line. The site’s real estate developer describes the grand design of this building as “a textbook example of Collegiate Gothic-style architecture” that blends “functional muscularity and stately elegance,” calls the building “among the finest schools ever built in New York City,” and references the design choices and prolific career of the building’s original architect C.B.J. Snyder, including his choice of a through-block H-shaped plan for the building (see original building plan at right), which maximized the amount of natural light possible for a mid-block site.
C.B.J. Snyder was the superintendent and chief architect for New York City Schools from 1891 to 1922. During his tenure, he oversaw the construction of more than 400 public schools, of which nearly 300 are still in use. PS90, however, saw its last students in the late 1960s. In 1970, the building was declared obsolete and abandoned. But while it had to wait forty years to be reborn in 2010 as a residential building with a ground-floor community facility, in the early 1990s the building played a significant role in inspiring a group of young architects to make a case for incorporating evolving knowledge of how we learn most comfortably and most productively into the design of learning environments. It was one of six sites chosen for a landmark design study organized by the Architectural League and the Public Education Association called New Schools for New York: Plans and Precedents for Small Schools (1992). On the occasion of PS90’s rebirth as a residential complex and community facility, we thought we’d dust off the publication that documented the design study and check it out. What we found reminds us of how relevant the designs and development strategies remain nearly twenty years later.
Towards the end of 1988, New York State established the Schools Construction Authority (SCA) to build new public schools and manage the design, construction and renovation of capital projects in New York City’s more than 1,200 public school buildings. At the time, over half of New York’s schools had been constructed prior to 1949, including the prodigious output of Snyder.
The prevailing thinking in the late 1980s – determined in the balance sheets of construction, building maintenance and human resources – held that to make a school economically feasible, it had to be the size of a city block. Yet, the economy of scale argument led to learning environments that were demonstrably failing New York’s children. With the SCA in place, and the city embarking on its first major school building program in many years, the League and PEA partnered to organize a design study that would challenge that received wisdom by producing designs for small schools that would demonstrate ways in which the building of small schools could employ a variety of different development strategies. The League worked with over 70 architecture firms and individual designers on six sites in four boroughs, including sites in Morrisania, Flushing, Sunset Park, Prospect Heights, Washington Heights and Harlem. The designs were featured in an exhibition and a publication. The New Schools for New York design study, along with an earlier Architectural League design study called Vacant Lots (1987), marshaled the energy and creativity of a community of architects and applied it to issues in the public interest of all New Yorkers.
Michael Manfredi, who participated in both design studies and worked on the PS90 site, described the period as one in which architects were “hungry to actively participate in socially minded projects.” Manfredi and partner Marion Weiss, whose firm’s portfolio now includes built projects such as Barnard College’s Diana Center and the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park, initiated their joint practice for work on Vacant Lots and New Schools for New York. He describes the opportunity that the League provided for young designers — to produce designs with real-world utility on urban in-fill sites, to engage the public sector, to foster fellowship with other designers interested in social justice — as unique at the time.
While the historical moment was one of economic and architectural stagnation, the beginning of a new school building program created an opening for design innovation and, crucially, real collaboration between an education reform advocacy group, a cultural institution dedicated to nurturing excellence in architecture and urbanism, and a community of designers who wanted to put their talents to good use.
In addition to multiple site visits and neighborhood analyses, the League gave the architects a clear mandate. It reads as follows:
Task: Design an adaptive reuse of abandoned PS90 as a multi-use community center.
Site: Public School 90, a vacant elementary school on West 148th Street in Harlem was declared obsolete and abandoned by the Board of Education during the 1970s. Completed in 1906, PS90 is a five-story, masonry bearing wall H-plan school similar to many others around the city built during the term of innovative Superintendent of School Buildings C.B.J. Snyder. The Bradhust district of Harlem, in which the school is located, includes many vacant apartment buildings currently being renovated for housing for the homeless and for low-income families. The Harlem Urban Development Corporation and a number of community organizations and institutions have proposed the comprehensive Bradhurst Plan for this area as a way of addressing the economic, educational and social needs of the existing population and the new residents who will move into the rehabilitated housing.
Architectural Program: Architects were asked to propose how the existing structure of P.S. 90 could be renovated as a community center, including a small alternative high school for 250 students. Other uses to be included in the building were an auditorium/theatre and gymnasium for community use, a branch library, an infant and toddler care center for 45 children, an early childhood center for 60 children, social services offices, a senior citizen’s center, and a health clinic. Design issues of particular importance were how to create appropriate access, circulation and security within the building. The proposed program envisioned almost round-the-clock use of the building by a variety of groups, all of which would benefit from sharing amenities and facilities.
Each of the five teams who worked on this site developed an original scheme. The City College Architecture Center envisioned a Maison du Peuple where residents share cultural recreational and social services organized around an interior plaza carved from the basement, ground and second floor. Brett Boyd Steele posited that the school of the future is “no more than a transmitter,” meaning his abstract scheme, with its emphasis on mobility and circulation, prioritizes the social program over the container. Carlos Wolovick‘s scheme would preserve the historic exterior of the structure but replace the interior, using the crossbar of the “H” to connect the functions and spaces within the building. Francis L. Turner sought to encourage public use of facilities with a bridge/crosswalk to link new and existing buildings on a roof garden level. And Weiss Manfredi proposed an “improvisational, educational and cultural center” in an “agora” opened up between the two separate buildings, the high school and community center, created by removing the bar of the buiding’s H. In conversation, Manfredi describes the idea as “an act of tactical removal” that took out the connection between the two arms of the H in order “to make a more porous connection to the community.”
The New Schools for New York design study tested a variety of development strategies to deliver smaller schools. In Sunset Park, the task was to design a new complex that included an elementary school for 350 children and a public library, thus leveraging the resources of multiple city agencies in a shared capital project. (R. Darby Curtis and Mark Ginsberg, principals of the team that designed the PS90’s recent residential conversion, worked with Julia Doern on a scheme for this site for the design study). In Prospect Park, the task was “to divide a large high school into four distinct academies.” This strategy for decreasing school size within existing school buildings has been used often in the past decades, and remains difficult to do well; competition for space and other challenges of coexistence in shared facilities have often demonstrated the complexities of reshaping the physical environments of school buildings. Looking back, the benefits and possibilities of small schools has, over time, informed the ways certain New York City public schools are organized and built. But the important successes of the small schools movement has not removed the significant barriers to providing New York’s school children with ideal spaces in which to learn. Small schools themselves are no panacea to entrenched challenges in education and school administration.
The reuse of PS90 may have taken forty years, but it nonetheless reminds us that resources are available in the city that can be put to use. The New Schools for New York design study was one way to test specific ideas through collective research and design experimentation. It was one way to consider how to translate ideas about social organization, education, and implementation processes into physical forms. And the broader lesson, that the convening of designers to work on spatial solutions to social challenges has a role to play in improving urban life and landscape, is one we must continue to relearn. The New Schools for New York design study provides a powerful case study of doing just that. And therefore, it still has much to teach us. –C.S.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.