The Man Who Built New York City’s Schools

How a dogged reformer turned around a crumbling, decrepit public school system, creating cathedrals of education that revolutionized life for millions.

The Man Who Built New York City’s Schools

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?

At P.S. 186, the worn facade, once an emblem of the golden age of school building, now more quickly recalls Harlem's grittier past.
At P.S. 186, the worn facade, once an emblem of the golden age of school building, now more quickly recalls Harlem’s grittier past.

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.

An ornate staircase at the heart of the nearly-gutted building.
An ornate staircase at the heart of the nearly-gutted building.

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.”

Morris High School in the Bronx from the Front, South west
Snyder’s Morris High School in the Bronx, shot by Jacob Riis in 1903. (From the Collection of the Museum of the City of New York).

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.

A rare portrait of C.B.J. Snyder (Photo: Findagrave.com)
A rare portrait of C.B.J. Snyder (Photo: Findagrave.com)

For three decades, Snyder used his architectural and engineering prowess and took an operation and turned it into an art. Romanesque revival, Flemish Renaissance Revival, Collegiate Gothic Revival, Georgian Revival — his schools were built with steel frame construction and some combination of amenities like terracota trim, bell towers, and rooftop playgrounds. Many were constructed in what would become Snyder’s signature style: the H-plan, a shape that cut through the middle of a block to reduce street noise and maximize space while simultaneously providing children with nearly an acre of open play area.

Snyder was also the first architect in the country to fireproof public schools, further designing a type of interlocking stairs that allowed buildings to empty faster during drills and emergencies. “Fire safety was really important to him, because, growing up in Saratoga Springs, one of the most affluent vacation spots in the country at the time, their Broadway was lined with huge wooden hotels, six of which burned while he lived there. It’s got to have made a huge impression, all those hotels burning.”

Today, thirteen of his schools and five of his additions have been landmarked. Two-hundred and eighty of the buildings remain standing and 235 of these are still public schools (the rest have been converted to everything from condos to health facilities, artist housing, halfway homes and shelters). Some have been divided up into three or four schools; some are the subject of fierce legal battles as they crumble in place.

In the case of P.S. 186, its faded glory is still evident in the lust of its decay – a Gothic-style center staircase, breathtaking even without most of its railing; the hulking facade the most majestic thing on 145th Street despite its blown-out windows; the cemented-in second floor; the trees growing from its roof. These buildings are timeless, their beauty so resilient as to still look better than other schools while in a state of utter decrepitude.

The ceiling has caved in on the auditorium at the abandoned Harlem school.
The ceiling has caved in on the auditorium at the abandoned Harlem school.

Born in the small town of Stillwater, New York, and raised in nearby Saratoga Springs, there is very little known about the man responsible for the largest expansion of schools in U.S. history (during his tenure Snyder often opened “more schools in a single year than existed in most other American cities”). He was the son of a harness maker, attended Cooper Union, and when he retired in 1922, after thirty-one years in the public school system, he cited his understandable exhaustion, not having had a vacation since 1904, and a desire to go fishing. Very little other information about Snyder’s life is publicly available.

Gouverneur Street Public School.
An 1897 rendering of Snyder’s Gouverneur Street Public School on East Broadway. (From the Collection of the Museum of the City of New York).

College English professor Jean Arrington relocated to New York in the summer of 2005 and quickly fell in love with Snyder’s buildings while applying for teaching jobs. Dissatisfied with the available information on both the man and the buildings, she began reading the Board of Education’s annual reports in the City Hall Library, looking at pictures of Snyder’s buildings and microfilms of his blueprints, taking long train rides to Babylon to have lunch with Snyder’s octogenarian granddaughters, and scouring their brains and garages for information about their grandfather.

She learned about the circumstances of his gruesome death from the family’s photocopy of a yellowed article from the local newspaper, The Babylon Times.

Snyder's designs were notable for letting more light into school buildings than ever before.
Snyder’s designs were notable for letting more light into school buildings than ever before.

“It was November, 1945, and he had built a summer house in Babylon that didn’t have heating,” Arrington said. “He and his son Robert were staying in the house, and their practice was to turn on the oven in the morning and prop it open with a cookie cutter and heat the kitchen.” One morning, the oven did not light, and Snyder, Robert, and their dog were asphyxiated as gas leaked into the house. The milkman came to deliver the milk and became suspicious when he didn’t hear the dog barking inside the house.

“It’s ironic,” Arrington says of Snyder’s death, “because he had been hugely innovative in devising ways to heat schools much more efficiently and safely than they had been up to the time he came in.”

With the help of his remaining relatives and New York State censuses, Arrington has pieced together not only Snyder’s influences, but also an extensive knowledge of his childhood and family life. “In Saratoga Springs, the Snyders lived in the cheapest house in the whole neighborhood,” Arrington says. “When Charles was two years old his father left with the 77th Regiment to fight in the Civil War. One of his sisters died when he was thirteen.”

He got the position as superintendent in 1891. He married, brought his remaining sister, mother, grandmother and wife down to New Rochelle to live in a house he’d built while he lived in the city. He moved around a lot, traveled back and forth a lot. For a time he lived up in the Fordham section of the Bronx, then on the Upper West Side, in Harlem, Ditmas Park, Midwood and Flatbush.

An identical setup to P.S. 186 can be found in Snyder's better-preserved structures, only with less debris and graffiti.
An identical setup to P.S. 186 can be found in Snyder’s better-preserved structures, only with less debris and graffiti.

Despite claims that the school’s H-shape was inspired by the Hotel Cluny in Paris, according to Arrington’s timeline, Snyder did not visit France until after the designs had already been laid out, H-shape and all. “The fact of the matter is he designed the schools and then went to Europe,” she says. “The Board of Ed. sent him to England and France to look at schools. He’d already designed the H-plan, just hadn’t built any of them yet.”

This minor historical discrepancy is nothing, however, compared to the historical loss at P.S. 186, the still-grand but once-functional community resource rapidly being eaten by time. But there is hope: Recently, three developers secured close to $50 million in funding to renovate P.S. 186 and turn it into a 10,000-square-foot facility for the Boys and Girls Club of Harlem. There is a potential future for this lost Snyder gem, but it’s still unclear whether there’s hope for Snyder’s legacy itself.

While Arrington has a manuscript for a book on Snyder’s life, she does not yet have a publisher. Only time can tell whether Snyder’s story will be reborn and live on like my high school, full of light and students, or grow overgrown on its once-gloried foundation.

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