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The Largest School in the World

Designed by Charles B.J. Snyder, P.S. 188 opened on September 21, 1902, taking up the entire city block bounded by East Houston and what was then Lewis, Manhattan, and East Third streets. A 1902 New York Times article deemed this building “the largest public school in all the United States, and probably the world.” Designed to serve 6,000 students, when P.S. 188 was completed the following year there were reportedly more students registered there than at Harvard, Yale, or the entire public school population of Nevada!

P.S 188 via Google Street View

It had 100 classrooms, two rooftop playgrounds, two glass-roofed 10,000 square-foot courtyard gymnasiums, four kitchens for cooking instruction, two assembly rooms, two libraries, a carpentry shop, and public baths in the basement.

P.S. 188’s “Indoor Playground” ca. 1903 and the same room today.

Snyder is credited with designing over 400 public schools, and his revolutionary approach to school design used a unique H-shaped plan that created central courtyards, providing pupils with light, air, and places to play in neighborhoods severely lacking such necessities. P.S. 188 was embraced by educators around the country as a model for urban school design and was used as an example of American innovation.

The P.S. 188 Girls’ Roof-Playground, ca. 1903. The Williamsburg Bridge is visible in the background to the right. Image via the Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Department of Photographs, Division of Modern and Contemporary Art

The open-air features of the school stood in stark contrast to the crowded and filthy neighborhood tenements of the era. The school was literally a breath of fresh air for the largely immigrant student body. The neighborhood was overwhelmingly European immigrants. In one study of girl students, 90% had parents who spoke a foreign language. The school’s first principal, Edward Mandel, explained at the time: “You will see, side by side, the children of the poor, the well-to-do, the ignorant, the enlightened, the criminal and the law-abiding classes….All are learning out of the same books; all are to be American citizens.”

The school still exists as P.S. 188, and is now known as The Island School. The building is also home to Girls Prep Lower East Side Elementary Charter School.

P.S. 188 as mapped in 1903 and 2022

Click here to read about other C.B.J Snyder schools in our area. Click here to read more about the building on our East Village Building Blocks site.

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