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Tracing the History of Flatbush Through One of Its Schools

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Welcome back to Curbed Classics, a column in which writer Lisa Santoro traces the history of a classic New York City building. Have a building to nominate for a future installment? Please suggest it to the tipline.

With the beginning of a new school year, it seems fitting for Curbed Classics to feature a historic school building?Flatbush's Erasmus Hall High School at 899-925 Flatbush Avenue. The building's style and design are impressive. It possesses cathedral-like sentimentality and its adornment?owls (representing wisdom), gargoyles, wrought-iron lanterns, and stunning stained glass, some of which was designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany in the 1910s. But there's more to the building than its facade. It contains layers of history that tell the story of Flatbush's growth and development, its subsequent decline, and now its remarkable resurgence.

If you peek past the iron fence covering the school's main entrance, you will see a decaying wooden clapboard schoolhouse that seems a bit out of place. This is actually the building that started it all?the original Erasmus Hall Academy, the oldest secondary school in the state. The two-and-a-half-story building (which throughout its tenure would have wings added and subsequently removed) was built in 1786 by the townspeople of Flatbush on land donated by the Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church, located just across the street. The school's benefactors were prominent men of the time, their names still memorialized throughout the area?John Vanderbilt, Alexander Hamilton, Jacob Lefferts, John Jay, and Aaron Burr. The school was named after Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), a Dutch scholar, humanist and teacher. The school opened a year later, in 1787, under the leadership of Dr. and Reverend John H. Livingston and soon became a moral and educational force in the community. But despite growth in the early 1800s?female students were accepted in 1801 and in 1803 Erasmus incorporated the village school of Flatbush?the school was unable to compete for enrollment with the city's new public school system. Dwindling enrollment numbers due to the high cost of tuition led the benefactors to support converting Erasmus Hall Academy into a public high school in 1896, under the name Erasmus Hall High School.

Given the increase in enrollment once the school went public, expansion was essential. Charles B.J. Snyder, the Superintendent of School Buildings who designed and constructed over 170 New York City public schools during his tenure, drew up plans in 1904 for a series of buildings (to be built on an as-needed basis) around a grassy quadrangle, using the original wooden schoolhouse as the centerpiece of the courtyard. This was a practical design, as the fortress-like perimeter buildings screened out the noise and congestion of the busy thoroughfares around the complex. The buildings were designed in Snyder's trademark collegiate Gothic style and were meant to evoke the buildings of Oxford and Cambridge Universities. The school was constructed in four phases, in 1905-1906, 1909-1900, 1924-1925 and 1939-1940, with the two later buildings supervised by Superintendents William Gompert and Eric Kebbon. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designation report describes the complex as such: "its buff brick facades have limestone and terra cotta trim and feature central entrance towers with oriel windows and crenellated parapets, Tudor-arched entrances, label moldings and large window groupings." Although later buildings are designed in a less ornamental manner (due to changes in style and most likely less ample funds), they still relate to the older buildings and together create a cohesive and striking campus.

The first new section, the multi-leveled three and four-story Flatbush Building, was opened in September 1906 and consisted of the entrance tower, classrooms, teachers' rooms, offices, laboratories, an auditorium, and a library. The cornerstone of the building contained such mementos as a course of study for 1906; a bible, flag, Erasmus Hall High School seal, pin, photograph, song, history, a copy of the Erasmian for 1906; copies of the school plan and other items. The second phase, the Church Avenue Wing, was opened in 1911 and included three buildings with 31 classrooms, laboratories, study hall, and rooms for music, drawing, physics, and shop classes. The completion of this wing increased capacity by approximately 1,450 more students.

During the 1920s school enrollment continued to rise due to immigration, the enforcement of a compulsory education law, and, most simply, more parents' desire to send their children to school. So the third phase of construction, the Bedford Avenue addition, was approved in 1924. The building is much less ornamented than its fellows and featured a central tower with an arched passageway into the courtyard (a counterpart to the tower along Flatbush Avenue) as well as new classrooms, gymnasiums and a large swimming pool. Although advocacy for the fourth addition occurred in 1929, it was not built until a decade later, in 1939-1940. This addition was to be a five-story building on the south side of the lot connecting the Bedford Avenue building with the auditorium near Flatbush Avenue that would house classrooms, art and homemaking rooms, a girls' gymnasium and a large library. However, in order to make this addition possible, the original 1786 wooden schoolhouse was moved and several of its wings demolished. The Works Progress Administration had already begun a thorough restoration of the building, but it wasn't completed until after World War II, when it was restored and relocated to its current site.

The rest of the school has also been altered from its original formation. Due to years of poor academic performance, the school, with an alumni list that includes Barbra Streisand, Clive Davis, Mae West, Barbara Stanwyck, Neil Diamond, Eli Wallach, Bobby Fischer, has been divided into five smaller high schools to form the Erasmus Hall Educational Campus. The exteriors of the buildings have remained unaltered, so the campus design is still intact. In 2003, the school's buildings were officially granted city landmark designation.

The original Erasmus Hall Academy, which today houses a museum and administrative offices, sits at the center of the campus and serves as the heart of the school. After years of neglect and decay, the building has recently received various preservation grants for restoration. Perhaps with the continued resurgence of the area and other restorations taking place in the neighborhood, such as the nearby Loew's Kings Theatre, and the celebration and preservation of various private homes within "Victorian Flatbush", the original schoolhouse, which started it all, could be restored to its former glory and serve as a reminder of the area's early beginnings.
?Lisa Santoro

Further Reading:
· LPC Report: Erasmus Hall [NYC.gov; PDF]
· Erasmus Hall Academy is Falling Apart [NYT]
· The Brilliance of East Flatbush: Erasmus Hall [Untapped]
· Curbed Classics archive [Curbed]