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Architecture Of Daily And Public Use

There’s always a fuzzy line as to where architectural intent ends. The inclusive definition of architecture, which is the one I prefer, says that the word should be applied to everything in the built environment. Buildings (and other structures) built without architects may be ad hoc or vernacular architecture, but that’s fine. The further into the past you go, the blurrier the line gets between designed and undesigned buildings. That specifically applies to the example I came across today, New York City public schools.

New York’s schools since 1891 have been dominated by one architect, C. B. J. Snyder. He was responsible for their design for 32 years and around 350 buildings, some of which are still in use, and since his retirement a lot of our school design has been a reaction to his buildings. But what came before him is less often discussed. The vast majority of the pre-Snyder schools have been demolished as obsolete. The postcard above shows the auditorium of one, Public School 14. The NYPL states the photo was taken between 1850 and 1930, but the Pach Brothers were at 858 Broadway no earlier than 1871 and no later than 1877, so that’s when this stereoscopic view was being sold.

In the 1870s, public schools were one of the few places that the average New Yorker might regularly run into public architecture. There was substantially less bureaucracy back then, polling places were often in private businesses, and there was no publicly-owned mass transportation. The outside of the school buildings was by our standards ornate, but by the standards of the era was fairly ordinary. They were brick boxes with stone trim, as seen here at another 1870s Pach view, of Grammar School 3:

The top picture intrigues me. The columns are cast iron, and the scalloped ceiling is either brick or terra cotta segmental vaults carried on wrought-iron beams. In other words, we have a non-flammable but not fire-rated room. By the 1890s, Snyder was building schools that were, for that era, considered to be fire-rated. Snyder’s schools were also, in many neighborhoods, the tallest buildings other than church spires, while the pre-Snyder schools tend to be two or three stories of ordinary height and so were less prominent. These two schools were obviously designed by someone, but without the attention to daylight, ventilation, and interior circulation that made the Snyder schools such an improvement over past practice. Without such innovation, there’s little to separate these buildings from their commercial contemporaries.

There’s more on NYC school design in City of Brick and Steel.