New Life for Old School?

By Matt Pheenza

Residents of East Harlem were horrified last March to discover workmen carting off pieces of Public School 109, a century-old, Gothic-style school located on East 99th Street between Second and Third avenues.

"They were pillaging this beautiful building," recalled local resident Gwen Goodwin, who discoveered that an architectural artifact dealer, with permission of cityh school authorities, was removing the building's gargoyles and turrets. Ms. Goodwin and her neighbors were additionally angered when they were told that the entire school woulod soon be demolished. Concerned residents then formed the Coalition to Save P.S. 109,and successfully halted the demolition by convincing state authorities that the school, built in 1899 by prolific New York school architect Charles B.J. Snyder, deserved landmark consideration.

On Jan. 18, coalition leaders presented Community Board 11 their plan for the school's future—they want the old halls of P.S. 109 to again echo with the voices of children and the rustling of textbook pages. Specifically, they nack a proposal that the Urban Peace Academy, an althernative public school, move into a newly renovated P.S. 109.

The Urban Peace Academy teaches more than 300 ninth through 12th graders in a setting that emphasizes small classrooms and individual attention. Principal William Stroud told The Observer that the school, which shares a building with Junior High 45 on 120th Street, suffers from a lack of space.

Experts for the coalition who have closely examined P.S. 109 are confident that the old school can again house studentsj. The New York Landmarks Conservancy, a private nonprofit organization that provides technical and financial support for historic preservation, hired engineer Robert Silman to determine if the structure could be rebuilt.

Mr. Silman, in internationally renowned specialist in historic preservation who worked on Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Waters home, determined that the school's outer structure could be repaired for roughly $12 million. Architect Raymond Plumey, who lives in the neighborhood and took a personal interest in P.S. 109. concurred with Mr. Silman's assessment. "The building is structurally souund and an be saved," he told The Observer.

Mr. Plumey noted that Mr. Silman's estimate of $12 million, which focused on the shell of P.S. 109, did not include the additional cost of renovating classrooms. Nonetheless, Mr. Plumey was confident that the totla cost would still be cheaper than building a new school, which he said now costs upward of $40 million. "It's definitely cost-effective to renovate P.S. 109," he concluded.

City school officials did not agree with that assessment when they decided to tear P.S. 109 down. TheBoard of Education closed the school in 1996 after determining that it was unsafe. While they assurted parents at the time that the schoolwould soon reopen, the board eventually decided that the cost of renovationwas prohibitive and that the school should be demolished.

Debra Perry, spokesman for the School Construction Authority, the New York City agaency that could be responsible for either rehabilitating or razing P.S. 109, told The Observer the school is sealed, awaiting further instructions. "The building is going to remain boarded up until the Board of Education advises otherwise."

Margie Feinberg, a Board of Education spokesman, told The Observer that the board was evaluating both the cost-effectiveness and the need for renovating P.S. 109; she was unsure when officials would reach a decision. She added that the board has estimated it would cost $10 million to $12 million to repair the building's exterior, but that the cost to repair the inside, which she referred to as "gutted," had not yet been determined. Ms. Feinberg did acknowledge that the cost of renovating a school is usually cheaper than building a new one, but would not say if that were the case for P.S. 109.

Ms. Goodwin wonderes why the board hasn't approved P.S. 109's renovation. "We have a school that's ready and willing to take the space," she noted, referring to the academy. "Why aren't the children of East Harlem entitled to go to a beautifl school?"