Volume 74, Number 19 | September 02 - 09 , 2004



Lions and tigers and mega-dorm developers, oh my! East Villagers try to save a historic school building

By Lincoln Anderson

Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue,
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true.

Those immortal lyrics, sung by Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz,” were written by Yip Harburg, a graduate of the old Public School 64 by Tompkins Sq. Park. And if the dream that a group of East Villagers is daring to dream comes true, the former school building will be saved for posterity and returned to use an arts and community center.

While the leaders and stars of tomorrow will soon begin another school year, the East Village Community Coalition is trying to highlight the history of the former P.S. 64 and its students of yesteryear in hopes of saving the broken-down, old building from demolition.

Developer Gregg Singer — the wicked witch of this drama, so to speak — bought the property, 605 E. Ninth St., in a city auction in 1998, and three years ago succeeded in evicting CHARAS/El Bohio, the arts center that had occupied it for 20 years. In March, The Villager first reported Singer’s plan to build a 23-story university dormitory on the site.

Feeling that the towering dorm’s height as well as use are out of context with the neighborhood and that the school must be preserved, E.V.C.C., formerly known as Stop the Dorm/Save Our School, decided the best way to save the building would be to landmark it.

So it was off to see the wizard — er, rather, Landmarks Preservation Commissioner Robert Tierney. There was a meeting with Tierney and they learned what is required for a designation.

E.V.C.C. produced a designation report — “The Significant History and Architecture of Public School 64”— triggering the agency’s review process for the building. The report was jointly written by Kate Lemos, historic preservation consultant for E.V.C.C., with original research and writing on the school’s history by Roland Legiardi-Laura. An E.V.C.C. member and director of Nuyorican Poets Café, Legiardi-Laura made extensive use of New York Times’ archives for the report, unearthing information about the school long forgotten by most — like the fact that Harburg, author of the lyrics of one of America’s best-known songs and most-loved musicals, was a graduate.

Built in 1906, the original P.S. 64 features a beaux-arts facade. It was designed by C.B.J. Snyder, the city’s master schools planner at the turn of the century, known for his distinctive ‘H’-style (when viewed from above) public school buildings. The ‘H’ design was intended to let the maximum amount of fresh air and natural light into the building. Ventilation and sunlight were then considered the keys to health for immigrant families living in cramped Lower East Side tenements. The ‘H’ design also insured that the majority of windows would face into the courtyards and away from the noise of teeming streets.

At the end of the 19th century, the city desperately needed new schools for an exploding student population, and as a result Snyder built 125 of the ‘H’-style buildings, in a variety of styles, from modern French to Dutch colonial to Collegiate gothic. One of Snyder’s ‘H’ buildings, the old Stuyvesant High School in Gramercy, is, in fact, an individual city landmark.

Making P.S. 64 a special ‘H’ is the fact that it may be the first in which Snyder included a ground-floor auditorium inside the building’s envelope, as opposed to in a low, connected building as in his previous designs, E.V.C.C.’s designation report notes.

Also setting P.S. 64 apart, is the long and significant role it has played in the East Village as both an educational and cultural landmark. Its large auditorium and outdoor terraces on its Ninth and 10th St. sides were the scenes of literary readings, campaign stops by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Governor Alfred E. Smith and Mayor Jimmy Walker and free public theater productions featuring stage stars of the early 20th century.

In an era before radio and TV, readings and lectures in the auditorium helped Lower East Side immigrants, then primarily Jews, assimilate. According to the New York Times’ weekly listing of evening talks, in 1907 local residents could have gone to P.S. 64 to hear Dr. Edwin Slossen talk about the Panama Canal, A.V. Williams Jackson recite Persian mystic poetry and Miss Mary D. Fisk discuss “Camping in the Rockies.”

The school was the first in the city to have electric lights in its courtyard, which is why it was first in the city to offer free, open-air professional theater. An effort to stage “The Merchant of Venice” on the 10th St. terrace in 1911, however, proved impractical because the trolleys rumbling down the street made the performance inaudible. But the thousands of people gathered across the street, packed into the courtyard and peering from tenement windows were treated to an impromptu rendition of Kipling’s “Gunga Din,” given by Sidney Greenstreet, an actor in the production, who later became famous as the “fat man” in “Casablanca.” The play was performed in the auditorium two days later.

The designation report notes that a “fertile history of controversy, educational and political, played out within and around the walls of P.S. 64.”

In one of the earliest student strikes on record, P.S. 64 students formed a union, Local No. 2, Arithmetic Union, and went on strike against the rumored possibility that the principal would be transferred to another school.

In the years before World War I, educators at P.S. 64 hoping to institute a culture of “corporate efficiency” at the school, tried to implement vocational training and tracking, but parents rebelled. The designation report notes that vocational training was “strongly opposed by the newly minted Americans, who felt their children were being shunted into poorly rewarded vocational and manual careers — precisely the reason they had fled the rigid European class structure. The most vociferous opponents to this planned tracking were the Jewish immigrants who rioted in the streets of New York for several weeks in 1917.”

Following the school-efficiency battles, Elizabeth Irwin, the famous educator, initiated an IQ and psychological testing program at the school as a way to organize classes according to the students’ learning abilities.

“Once again, P.S. 64 was at the forefront of this movement,” the designation report states. “A young educational innovator, Elizabeth Irwin, the founder of the famous Little Red Schoolhouse in Manhattan, worked at P.S. 64 from 1912 until 1921. While there, she devised a classification system for students predicated on the scores of their IQ tests. The testing established students at the school, which was overcrowded with 3,100 boys in 1921, in five groups: ‘gifted, bright, average, dull normal and defective.’ ” The categories were used to predict how fast students would complete eight years of education. Gifted students were anticipated to finish in six years, dull normal in 10 and defective students needing special classes.

The controversial program won acceptance based on its success at P.S. 64 and in 1922 the first large-scale IQ tests were performed on more than 40,000 city schoolchildren. The program gained acceptance and was adopted in hundreds of other public schools.

During McCarthyism, two of P.S. 64’s teachers, both long upstanding figures at the school, were arrested for alleged participation in the Communist Party.

“P.S. 64 burst into the newspapers again in 1950,” the designation report continues. “This time, two teachers from 64, out of a group of eight citywide, were accused by the Board of Education of being Communists. Then-Superintendent of Schools, Dr. William Jensen, began the spectacle by suspending the teachers without pay. The hearings, complete with secret witnesses, noisy protests, a gaggle of lawyers and culminating administrative trials, stretched into early 1951, when all eight were judged culpable and dismissed from their positions. David Friedman had taught for 20 years at P.S. 64 and Abraham Lederman, the president of the New York Teachers’ Union, had been a math teacher at P.S. 64 for 23 years. Lederman remained president of the Teacher’s Union until his death in 1963 at the age of 55.”

Throughout its history of educational innovation and controversy, P.S. 64 was all the while producing talented students. Harburg, who wrote the lyrics to “The Wizard of Oz” and 537 songs, including “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” and “How Are Things in Glocca Morra,” said of his days at 64: “My passion to be an actor was consuming. Luckily, the public school I attended, P.S. 64 had a lovely stage. When the teachers found that I was a talented actor, they had me on all the time. I won prize after prize for acting and reciting. Miss Wiseman at P. S. 64 took me and two other kids in the class to see Maude Adams in ‘Peter Pan.’ I think that experience had something to do with my love for fantasy.”

Sam Levene, the great comic actor, who appeared in scores of Broadway plays, in such roles as Nathan Detroit in “Guys and Dolls,” Patsy in “Three Men on a Horse,” Finkelstein in “Dinner at Eight,” and over 100 films, including “The Champ,” “Justice For All,” “The Babe Ruth Story” and “Sweet Smell of Success,” was a graduate of P.S. 64.

Morris Green, who produced Cole Porter’s “Greenwich Village Follies,” “Louder Please” and the Broadway version of Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under The Elms,” attended the E. Ninth St. school.

And Joseph Mankiewicz, Oscar-winning screenwriter, producer and director who made such films as “All About Eve,” “Woman of the Year,” “The Philadelphia Story,” “Julius Caesar,” “The Quiet American,” “Guys and Dolls” and “Cleopatra” spent his grade school years learning at P.S. 64.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, East Village buildings burned, drugs far more dangerous than Oz’s poppies infested the neighborhood and real estate values plummeted. By the mid-1970s the old P.S. 64 was closed. A new P.S. 64 was opened on Avenue B and Sixth St.

In the late 1970s, a group of young, Latino, former gang members calling themselves CHARAS squatted in the building and slowly built a thriving community arts center. Dubbing P.S. 64 El Bohio — “The Hut” in Taino, the language of Puerto Rico’s indigenous people — they offered inexpensive space to artists. Spike Lee screened his first student films in the P.S. 64 auditorium. Actors Luis Guzman and John Leguizamo performed on its stage. Patti Smith, Frank Zappa, Lou Reed and Philip Glass gave concerts there. However, in December 2001, four years after buying the building, Singer evicted CHARAS.

Although, a nonprofit group that would have built and operated the 23-story dormitory backed out of the project, Singer won’t say if the dorm is dead and is making no promises to save the existing building, which requires extensive renovation.

As a result of the threatened dorm project, there has been a renewed effort to preserve the history-laden building and to restore it to its most recent use as an arts and cultural center.

E.V.C.C.’s mission statement is: “To return this building to its rightful place as a community center, so that a bright future is secured for arts and education in our neighborhood.”

As for the landmarking effort, Michael Rosen, a founder of the group, said signals from Landmarks so far have been extremely positive.

Notes the designation report, “Even now as the building has become an object of sharp contention once again, it still accurately reflects the struggles of the neighborhood people to determine and to enrich the direction of their lives.”

Source: “The Significant History and Architecture of Public School 64,” landmark designation report on P.S. 64 by Kate Lemos and Roland Legiardi-Laura for East Village Community Coalition.

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