Each year, New York City’s 1 million public school students return to school after a long summer break. Few realize that one man is responsible for so profoundly shaping our idea of how a school would look and function, and that some of his best work is located right here in our own community.
In 1891, New York City’s Board of Education named Charles B.J. Snyder the superintendent of buildings. At first in charge of school design only in Manhattan and the Bronx, his domain expanded after the consolidation of Greater New York in 1898 to reach all five boroughs. From 1891 until his retirement in 1923, Snyder led the design of more than 400 educational projects, in a period that marked the greatest expansion of schools in the nation’s history,
His approach to school design was revolutionary, since he viewed the buildings where students would learn as civic monuments to a better society. As Snyder wrote in his 1894 annual report to the Board of Education, “Does a silk mill or an office building need more light than the school room? Is the work more important? You will answer ‘no’ to both questions. Then let us have the funds for buildings that will not be a menace to the eyesight and health of the pupils and teachers, and a reproach to the system.”
Perhaps the biggest innovation from Snyder was the “H”-shaped floor plan for many of his schools, in which buildings were built around a large central courtyard entrance and two smaller courtyards that led to street exits. The configuration opened up schools to promote healthier environments, filling classrooms with fresh air and natural light, helped by windows covering 60% of building exteriors (more than double of what the previous standard had called for). Another benefit: the setup left room between each building’s wings for recreation in neighborhoods often severely lacking in local play spaces.
While the new buildings could dominate the skyline of their home communities, they seldom felt overwhelming thanks to the elegance of their exterior design. Snyder incorporated elements from a wide range of architectural styles: Beaux Arts, English Collegiate Gothic, Dutch Colonial, and more. As his work progressed, he pursued a simplified Gothic style, “streamlined, modernized and institutional” without the gables, dormers, and chimneys of his earlier schools, according to Snyder biographer Jean Arrington.
“New York has one of those rare men who open windows for the soul of their time,” journalist Jacob Riis wrote of Snyder in his 1902 book The Battle with the Slum. “He found barracks, where he is leaving palaces to the people.”
Many of those palaces remain focused on education, including many in the East Village. In 1904, for example, Snyder designed the central portion of 333 East 4th Street as an addition to an older school facing East 5th Street. The five-story red brick Italianate building features terra cotta plaques on the fifth floor at the top of each pier separating the four bays. The overall structure has changed since then — in 1931, the original mid-19th-century school that fronted East 5th was demolished as part of a Works Progress Administration program; in 1953 an auditorium wing and a wing with more classrooms were added — but the site is still being used as P.S. 15, the Roberto Clemente School.
A bit further uptown at 420 East 12th Street is the former P.S. 60. The five-story brick building is described in an annual report by Snyder from 1922, but its H-plan is credited to architect William Gompert, Snyder’s successor as superintendent. Construction was completed the following year. The distinctive main entry porticos feature an elaborate entrance surround with beast carvings and other decoration over a large segmental arch. The building today is the East Side Community High School, a public school for 6th- to 12th-graders, with the charter Girls Prep Lower East Side Middle School housed there as well.
Not all Snyder schools remain centers of education, however, but they often still serve the community. The one-time P.S. 105 at 265-275 East 4th Street from 1896 is currently site of the George Daly House, providing transitional housing for homeless men and women ages 45 and older; one of Snyder’s earliest works, P.S. 122 at 150 First Avenue, is now Performance Space New York (and served as the high school in the 1979 movie Fame).
The 1906 Snyder-designed building at 605 East 9th Street, the old P.S. 64, housed CHARAS/El Bohio Cultural Center starting in 1979, but the city sold the site in 1998 to Gregg Singer, a Giuliani campaign contributor, and evicted the community center in 2001. Two decades later, the school remains empty and abandoned, and Singer has tried consistently to destroy the now landmarked building. CHARAS still does not have a home. Village Preservation is working with a coalition of local groups to seek the return of the former CHARAS to the space and to see the historic building restored and preserved for the benefit of the community, as a former Snyder school building deserves to be.