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November 21, 1999

Streetscapes/Charles B. J. Snyder; Architect Who Taught a Lesson in School Design


AFTER angering preservationists with its treatment of some older schools, the New York City School Construction Authority is planning to survey its buildings to find out just what it has. The survey will undoubtedly focus on Charles B. J. Snyder, architect for city schools from 1891 to 1922, whose many designs include Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn and Morris High School in the Bronx.

Snyder was hired to reform school design -- and instead created a revolution, setting a standard for municipal architecture that has proved hard to match.

From 1884 to 1891, the architect for the Board of Education had been George Debevoise, whose work was described by the Real Estate Record and Guide in 1893 as ''a civic disgrace -- warehouses have greater artistic value.'' Debevoise resigned suddenly amid suggestions that he had schemed with contractors to substitute cheaper materials in school projects -- although criminal charges were never filed.

Debevoise's replacement was Charles B. J. Snyder, who was only 30 years old. Snyder was born in Stillwater, N.Y., north of Albany, studied at Cooper Union and worked with the obscure New York architect William E. Bishop. It is not clear how he got the job, but it must have had something to do with the banker Robert Maclay, who served as head of the school board's building committee -- Snyder gave his son Robert, born about 1894, the middle name Maclay.

In his first annual report, Snyder called for specific standards for both school furniture and classroom air supply for the 140,000 students in the system. He also noted that surrounding construction often cut off schools' light and air.

Snyder's earliest buildings expanded Debevoise's Romanesque style. They included Public School 23, now a community center but still at the northeast corner of Mulberry and Bayard Streets, with sinuous carving at the entranceway. Within a year or two he began experimenting with the Northern European Renaissance styles in light-colored masonry -- the results included the orange brick Flemish-style school at 82nd Street and West End Avenue -- now a special-programs school -- and the limestone and terra cotta Collegiate Gothic-style P.S. 166 at 132 West 89th Street.

With class sizes reduced and budgets twice the size of Debevoise's, Snyder could introduce steel frame construction, giant banks of windows reaching almost to the ceilings, indoor toilets and mechanical ventilation.

Snyder's star rose, especially after Maclay was elected president of the Board of Education in 1895. But the architect also faced the same difficulties that Debevoise had to deal with -- the corner plots favored for schools were noisy and expensive.

In late 1896, Maclay sent Snyder on a study trip to London and Paris, and The New York Tribune reported that the architect was particularly impressed with the late Gothic-style Hotel de Cluny in Paris, a few blocks south of Notre Dame. The wide courtyard facing the street gave Snyder an idea -- pull back from the corners to the quiet, less expensive inside lots and build around a courtyard to insure light and air. He expanded that idea to the through-block H-plan, which became his signature design: The first such school, P.S. 165, on West 108th Street near Broadway, was completed in September 1898.

Snyder put up 5, 10, sometimes 15 buildings a year, ranging from giants like Erasmus and Morris to public schools in almost every neighborhood. More than libraries, firehouses or police stations, these new schools symbolized the commitment of the city to care for and even uplift its citizens.

Snyder's schools attracted occasional criticism. In 1901, City Council President Randolph Guggenheimer complained about ''unnecessary ornamentation'' on schools. But the Real Estate Record and Guide replied that it was ''worth every cent -- in the long run the modest and appropriate adornment of schoolhouses would do much more to raise the level of public taste than any amount of money spent on more sumptuous and conspicuous municipal edifices.''

According to Michele Cohen, program director for the Board of Education's Public Art for Public Schools Program, Snyder also introduced public art in school buildings by using stained glass in auditoriums. Her research has identified Jacob Riis as another Snyder supporter. In Riis's 1902 book, ''The Battle With the Slum,'' he wrote that in Snyder, ''New York has one of those rare men who open windows for the soul of their time.''

In that year Snyder proposed another idea, an eight-story school building served by escalators, but the idea was never tried during his tenure. In 1922 he told The New York Times that he was ''tired and completely worn out''; he retired from his $11,000 a year position at the end of 1922, when his schools served 906,000 students.

HIS departure was widely mourned; there were reports that Mayor John F. Hylan had forced him out to consolidate power over the Board of Education. Snyder was an architect for at least a decade after he left the school system, but there is no record of any buildings he designed.

In the last few years some of the School Construction Authority's actions have alarmed preservationists. While some schools have been sensitively renovated or restored by preservation-minded firms like Beyer Blinder Belle and Robert Silman Associates, in several cases Snyder's schools have been badly damaged. Among the restored schools is P.S. 40 on East 20th Street.

Two years ago, for P.S. 31 in the Bronx, a Collegiate Gothic-style Snyder design at the Grand Concourse and Walton Avenue, the authority hired an engineering firm experienced in new construction to repair some rusting steel columns. The school was closed, and the contractor began to rip apart the interior to install new steel, a job that in other instances has been done from the outside, without disrupting school operations.

That project is now on hold as the authority considers its options with the empty, torn-up building. What started as a $4 million project now approaches $40 million, according to the authority -- the cost of a new school.

Last year, at the request of the Board of Education, the authority began to demolish P.S. 109 at 225 East 99th Street, a classic 1899 Snyder H-plan. But the New York Landmarks Conservancy complained that the authority had ignored a requirement to check with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and the authority has canceled the work and reroofed and sealed the empty school for the winter.

''P.S. 31 is just a tragedy,'' said Peg Breen, the Landmarks Conservancy's president. ''Those children never had to move out of the building. You'd have to bomb those schools to make them structurally unsound.'' Ms. Breen said that P.S. 31 should be rebuilt, that P.S. 109 should be sold off intact, and that almost all Snyder schools should be designated landmarks.

Jack Deacy, a spokesman for the authority, said he believed that P.S. 31 was seriously deteriorated but that ''we think it's a mistake to have put $40 million into such a school, which won't have air-conditioning, elevators, a gym and modern wiring.'' He also said that ''we don't want to tear down any landmark buildings'' and that the agency had agreed with New York State to conduct a historic survey of all school buildings to determine which should receive special protection and to avoid future conflicts.

Such a survey should produce the first comprehensive list of Snyder's works, including unexecuted designs and those that have been demolished.

Of Snyder's private life, there is little knowledge. During his career he lived in a long succession of houses and apartment buildings in the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn. No current descendants have been identified, his middle names remain undetermined and, after he died in a freak gas accident in 1945 at 85, he was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, in an unmarked grave.

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