We hopped the fence and crawled through a broken ground-level window, entering into the abandoned monolith of West Harlem’s Public School 186. A trail of pigeon carcasses led us to the stairs, which we climbed cautiously, but it wasn’t until the third floor that I began to notice the uncanny similarities between the decaying structure and my high school on the Lower East Side. The same helix-style staircases, the phallic coat hooks, the large windows, the exit signs, the trough-like bathroom sinks — they were exactly the same as I’d seen in school that morning (two years ago now), only covered in dust and debris and pieces of ceiling. The two buildings were nearly identical, except in this one the floor had collapsed in parts, the book room was stocked with standardized tests from the 1950s and the floor was strewn with empty 40-ounce bottles and graffiti. What was this place?
My high-school building was beautiful. It was extraordinarily well lit, had high ceilings, old, heavy doors, a big, scholarly brick facade, a Gothic entrance, and a castle-like balustrade fencing the roof. A plaque in the front lobby gave me some history of the structure: built 1913, original architecture by Charles B.J. Snyder. I came to understand that the abandoned building I’d explored on 145th Street was built by the same Snyder, in 1903. P.S. 186, an Italian Renaissance-style structure that was shaped like an H, functioned as an elementary school for seventy-two years before being shut down after it reached a state of such disrepair that by the time it was finally closed multiple skylights were missing, the fire department ordered an evacuation because of faulty alarms on occasion, and teachers and students staged a walk-out to protest unsafe conditions.
Snyder had a tremendous impact on improving education, health and quality of life for New York City youth throughout the twentieth century. Like half of his work, however, his life has been lost to the times, despite the benefit it continues to bring to the countless amount of school children who’ve passed through his buildings. P.S. 186 is one example of a Snyder structure almost as forgotten as the man himself.
In an unmarked grave in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx lies the five-foot-seven-inch body of a man responsible for bringing untold amounts of sunshine to New York City’s youth. During his eighteen-year tenure as Superintendent of School Buildings for the New York City Board of Education, Snyder built public schools with windows that made up nearly sixty percent of the buildings’ facades, much of the remaining space covered in lavish ornamentation. “There is not a dark corner in the whole structure,” social reformer Jacob Riis wrote of Snyder’s design in his seminal 1902 text “The Battle With the Slum.” “Literally, he found barracks where he is leaving palaces to the people…I cannot see how it is possible to come nearer perfection in the building of a public school.”
Snyder was thirty years old when he was hired as superintendent. At the time, New York had some of the worst schools in the nation, running on double sessions and still having to turn children away every September. There weren’t enough of them, they weren’t big enough, and, according to an 1885 New York Times exposé, up to two-thirds of them were in horrible condition, describing rooms lit only by gas even on sunny days, basement playgrounds and polluted air. The work of Snyder’s predecessor, George W. Debevoise, had been described by the Real Estate Record and Guide as “a civic disgrace — warehouses have greater artistic value.” Snyder was given double Debevoise’s budget and was expected to implement reform to the system. He ended up building over 400 schools that would come to revolutionize municipal architecture.