In 1853 the newly formed “Board of Education” took control of New York City public schools, formerly operated by the Public School Society of New York City. The Board became responsible for the uniform instruction of pupils throughout the city, for the hiring and firing of instructors, and for the construction and maintenance of school buildings.
For a decade already a school building had stood at No. 208 West 13th Street which served the northern Greenwich Village neighborhood. The building was striking—a Greek Revival structure capped with a classical triangular pediment supported by four two-story pilasters.
|The original Public School No. 16 in 1853 -- NYPL Collection|
The new school would not be adequate for long. The population of Manhattan continued to explode throughout the second half of the 19th century and tenements and houses arose where a generation earlier had been rolling fields. By 1879 Public School 16 had sprouted two flanking additions so harmoniously designed that only the more astute observer could notice they were not original.
The rustication of the base continued unbroken as did the
bracketed cornice. The new additions
sported attractive triangular pediments that carried on the cornice
bracketing. Only the arched windows with
their faceted brownstone keystones strayed from the original design.
|The well-matched additions featured arched windows rather than the Italianate pediments of the original section.|
As the population swelled, the school responded. Within the decade the wings were extended to the rear, nearly filling the playground.
Going to school was not always simple for Victorian boys. Struggling families needed the extra income a teen-aged son could provide. To accommodate these boys, “evening school” was opened here in 1889. “Only students whose ages and avocations prevent them from attending the day schools will be received,” noted The Evening World on September 24. The boys had to be at least 13 years of age to enroll, and no older than 18.
“Some responsible person must go to the school with applicants for admission and vouch for them,” said the article. “Otherwise the applicant must show a certificate vouching for his identity and responsibility.”
Construction began again in 1896 to improve the school. But it ground to a halt when the contractor was not paid. On September 21, C. B. J. Snyder, the Superintendent of School Buildings, tactfully complained to Joseph J. Little, the Chairman of the Committee on Buildings.
“Dear Sir: I would respectfully report that all the schools are now open, with the exception of the following: G.S. No. 16, No. 208 West 13th Street opening postponed until the 28th inst. Contractor reported this morning that as yet he had received no money from the Comptroller on his contract.”
The Annual Report of the Board of Education for the year 1897 documented more construction and expansion of Public School 16. “Erecting a physical training building 50x50 feet and improving two lots, enclosed playroom and new yard and water closets, and improve interior of old building.”
The two lots had been purchased to the west of the school, most of which became the new playground. The “physical training building” was a one-story structure at the western edge of the property, connected to the main building by an extension of the rusticated base that formed a wall protecting the schoolyard. These renovations were designed by Snyder whose intelligent views revamped New York City school building design. His sympathetic attention to the historic architecture resulted in the seamless annex.
The “water closets” reveal that indoor toilets had not yet been installed in the building.
Public School 16 was the site of educational lectures
throughout the 1920s. Free of charge,
the evening talks were open to the public and covered a wide range of
topics. On December 13, 1921, for
instance, Rex Hunter gave a lecture on “New Zealand” accompanied with
stereopticon views. The following year
Mrs. Florence P. Clarendon lectured on “Women’s Work in Music.”
|The playground wall designed by Snyder could have been industrial and boring. Instead he cleverly continued the ground floor rustication, blending the wall with the school building.|
|Public School 16 at about the time that Mrs. Florence P. Clarendon was lecturing on "Women's Work in Music" -- NYPL Collection|
|The 1879 additions featured slightly-recessed windows, faceted brownstone details and carefully-matched sills and cornices.|
The Stonewall Riots marked the beginning of the Gay Rights movement throughout the country. Before long an interwoven community of organized groups and institutions formed.
The Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center, Inc. purchased the old school building from the City’s Board of Estimates in December 1983 for $1.5 million. Architect Francois Bollack was commissioned to restore and convert the school building into the Center which is used today by at least 300 groups.
Bollack’s sympathetic treatment of the façade continues the building’s tradition of unnoticeable growth and change. The building that has been enlarged and built upon time after time looks as though it had been always planned that way. Its use as the LGBT Community Center is an applaudable reuse of a vintage structure.
non-credited photographs taken by the author.
non-credited photographs taken by the author.