Palatial Schools for the Progressive era

From Factories to Palaces, a biography of school architect CBJ Snyder, opens a view onto a lost and glorious world of public education in New York City. Early 20th-century Progressives believed that mass public education could reconcile democracy and excellence. Their hopes shaped the 408 new schools and additions that Snyder designed during his 1891 to 1922 tenure as New York’s superintendent of school buildings. To a degree, Progressives’ hopes were fulfilled. Some Snyder schools, such as Erasmus Hall and Morris High, would produce long lists of notable alumni despite being neighborhood, not exam schools. Snyder biographer Jean Arrington invites us to consider the contribution that design makes to excellence in education.

Three factors accounted for the extravagant scale of Snyder’s school building program. The first two were the revenues pouring into the city treasury and the pressures of surging enrollment. In the current era, New York’s traditional district schools have been losing students since 2016, and that trend is expected to continue. In Snyder’s day, school enrollment was growing by 25,000 students every year. During Snyder’s most productive period, 1899–1914, enrollment almost doubled, and appropriations tripled. When his building program was going at full stride, a new Snyder-designed school was opening every 23 days.

The third factor was the Progressive movement’s high ambitions for public education. More kids were going to school, not just because of immigration but on account of child labor laws and the increasing normalization of high school. Progressives didn’t want schools to settle for teaching basic numeracy and literacy. Thus, school buildings had to become complex, and move away from the former “one-room schoolhouse” design paradigm of undifferentiated space to one of multiple specialized spaces and features. Snyder and his fellow Progressives embraced vocational education — far more so than 21st century school departments — which necessitated spaces for training in carpentry, dressmaking, millinery, and plumbing. The Progressives also, with equal fervor, embraced intellectual and artistic achievement for its own sake. That necessitated libraries, laboratories, study halls, music rooms, and art studios. Snyder’s crowd was enthusiastic about gymnasiums and playgrounds, and not only to help kids blow off steam but to teach sportsmanship and fair play, traditionally considered to be aristocratic values. Snyder and the Progressives pushed to improve the Jacob Riisian conditions of the 19th-century schools’ physical plant, the bad lighting, the classrooms with no desks, the “inadequate and filthy bathrooms.”

Sad to say, the author of From Factories to Palaces, Jean Arrington, died just a few months before the book’s publication. Her book will help revive interest in CBJ Snyder, a name mostly unknown in public education circles, even though about 20 percent of New York public school students still learn in one of the schools he built. The Encyclopedia of New York City has no entry for Snyder, a striking oversight for a man whose contribution to New York’s built environment gives Robert Moses a run for his money.

The most interesting discussions in the book center on Snyder’s conception of schools as community centers. He built elaborate, ground-floor auditoriums to host evening educational programs for schools’ immigrant communities. Attendance was strong: “The school system offered single lectures and series of lectures on topics such as great composers, the value of vaccinations, the development of Japan as a nation, and New York architecture, complete with lantern slides. In 1903 alone, one million working men and women attended 3,300 lectures, the majority held in public schools. ” What takes shape here is a vision of civic unity achieved through the promotion of a culture both shared and elevated. Our society today is more fractured, and the prospects are dimmer for both immigrant assimilation and high culture (now considered a counterculture). We have come to expect less of our schools. If schools everywhere could achieve basic numeracy and literacy, even if only that, we’d be thrilled. Still, it is worth observing that the Progressive movement’s achievements were real. There was once an era when Americans could and did have nice things.

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