Saturday, January 28, 2012

The 1886 Grammar School No. 8 -- 29 King Street

photo by Alice Lum
David I. Stagg was a busy man in the 1880s.  As Superintendent of School Buildings, he was also responsible for designing them and by now there was a flurry of construction as the public school system expanded.   On December 14, 1884 alone he submitted plans for two new school buildings and an addition to an existing one.

A year later he would be working on another building – Grammar School No. 8 in Greenwich Village.    Originally Public School No. 8, it was founded by the New York Public School Society and was turned over to the Board of Education in 1853.  That school building stood on the north side of Grand Street for decades but, as the New York Tribune explained, “The uptown march of population, however, began to leave No. 8 far behind.”

As commercial interests replaced residential neighborhoods, enrollment dwindled.  The population of Greenwich Village, on the other hand, was booming.  A row of Federal-style brick houses on King Street were razed to make way for the school and Stagg turned to the trendy Queen Anne style for his dignified, if unexpected, design.

Construction began in 1886 and was completed in August of the next year.  Three stories of brick sat on a substantial ground floor base of limestone.  Stone quoins and window pediments provided contrast with the red brick.  Numerous foliate-ornamented brackets upheld the cornice which was broken by a fanciful central parapet over a stone-framed bullseye window.  The new school, which cost a total of $250,000, could accommodate 1,200 students.

By the time the school was completed, Stagg was no longer Superintendent of Buildings.
The school stood out for the academic achievement of its students.  Of the fifteen who were presented diplomas in 1893, six of them were slated to enter the City College.   The student body, composed entirely of boys, reflected the mixed population of Greenwich Village.  On March 12, 1895 the New York Tribune noted “There are few schools in New-York where the intermingling of nationalities is so marked as in Grammar School No. 8, in King-st., between Macdougal and Varick sts.  In this school the American, Italian, Irish, German and Polish Hebrew pupils are pretty evenly divided and form an interesting study to the teachers.

“Being on the west side of the city, these pupils are from a comparatively well-to-do class of citizens, and present their several races in a more favorable light than in some other quarters,” the writer said.

He then proceeded to do what, by a modern viewpoint, was a rather racist dissection of the student body.  “The Italian pupils surpass their classmates in draughting and designing, but they are deficient in mathematics.  On the other hand, they are easily kept in order and seem to have great respect for their teachers, while their parents manifest a most earnest desire to have them perfect themselves in the English language.  The Irish are found to be quick in mathematics, while the Hebrews are proficient in general work.”

A limestone panel in the parapet announces the date of construction -- photo by Alice Lum
Although the building was only eight years old, its poor functional design was clearly evident.  While Stagg had produced an attractive façade, the interior arrangements and sanitary conditions fell far short of acceptable.   On January 5 of that same year The New York Times complained of the school’s outhouses, called “closets.” 


“Grammer School No. 8…suffers from lack of room, and has wretched closets, which endanger the health of the pupils and teachers.  There is not more than five feet of space between the rear of the school and a block of tenements…This space is utilized for the closets, which are of old construction and very bad.  The odors from the closets permeate the entire school building and are frequently unbearable.”

The problem was not limited to the sanitary arrangements.  The school was dark.  The Tribune said “Unfortunately, it is situated in the centre of a block and on the west side of it a five-story flathouse has been built, which shuts out much light from the lower floors of the school building, so that on rainy days it is necessary to burn gas.”

Dr. Moreau Morris of the Health Department inspected the school in January 1895 and reported “Has the old school sink closets, very offensive.  Should be changed for new automatic flush closets.  Over 1,200 children in attendance.”   Eventually modern plumbing would be installed in the school and the stench of 1,200 children using the outdoor privies alleviated. 

Darkness and unpleasant odors aside, Principal Elias Whitehead was bullish on his boys.  “I am very much interested in the spirit and ambition shown by the boys of No. 8,” he told reporters.  “The boys of foreign parents seem to vie with each other in their efforts to become thoroughly American.  When I read the roll of honor every Monday morning, I notice a very considerable percentage of Italian boys in the list.  They are all enthusiastic in their Americanism and will make the right sort of citizens when they grow up to be voters.”

Female students were permitted into the building beginning in 1889 for free evening classes.  The girls, who were required to be at least 16 years of age, could enroll in classes teaching “bookkeeping, penmanship, phonography, physiology, German, French or Spanish, arithmetic, freehand drawing, etc.”

By 1914 the demographics of Greenwich Village were no longer “comparatively well-to-do,” as they were in twenty years earlier.   Sections of the area were among the most impoverished in the city and some boys arrived at school hungry.   Social reformers targeted the Village with relief efforts such as Greenwich House where poor immigrant women were helped to better their living conditions.

Mrs. William B. Einstein who was President of the Widowed Mothers’ Fund Association started the Penny Lunch Program which included Grammar School No. 8.   For one cent the students could purchase a hot lunch in the cafeteria.  “For most of these children it is the only hot meal of the day,” she said.

Half a century later, in May 1958 the school became The Livingston School for Girls.  Despite its high-tone sounding name, it was the last hope for hard-core juvenile delinquents that regular public schools could not handle. 

The school was termed a “600” school, because its twelve teachers were paid $600 a year more than other teachers—a sort of hazardous duty pay.  The Livingston School was the city’s only public school exclusively for delinquent girls.

The principal, Dr. Esther Rothman, read to a reporter a list of typical reasons the girls—from 13 to 18 years of age—were sent to Livingston.  “Threatens classmates with bodily harm, punches boys, steals textbooks and property, shouts in class, throws temper tantrums, intercepts and destroys mail, uses vile language at teachers, smokes in school, wielded knife against teacher, chased girl with knife, struck boy over head with chair, pushed girl down stairs, throws furniture, rings fire alarm.”
To combat the psychological problems the girls faced, the staff attempted to give them a sense of self-worth.  Every girl, for instance, who made the weekly honor roll—based on punctuality, good behavior and five straight days without truancy—was given a corsage.  A local florist donated thirty-five of them every week.

Despite the unsightly window air conditioners, the Queen Anne building -- a relative rarity in New York-- is well preserved -- photo by Alice Lum
In 1981 Grammar School No. 8 was converted to 39 luxury apartments.    Behind the restored façade, which the AIA Guide to New York City called “a lively Queen Anne,” million dollar condominiums replace the school rooms where immigrant boys learned mathematics and drafting.

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