I live near the Julia Richman Educational Complex (JREC), a half-block school building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Built in 1923 as a vocational girls school, Julia Richman is a boxy pile of red brick with minimal but tasteful classical adornment. A simple pediment entrance is inscribed, “Knowledge is Power.” It eventually became a regular high school and slowly declined into the 1980s as a drug-infested, vandalized urban nightmare.
In the mid 90s it was reborn (with lots of help, including Bill Gates) as a home to six autonomous schools, and is by all accounts a huge success and a model for rehabilitated educational complexes.
But alas, nearby Hunter College wants to tear it down and build a high-rise science facility. Hunter has offered that the students “currently learning in the 80-year-old building, which was retrofitted to include several small schools, would relocate to a brand new state-of-the-art building.”
The not-so-subtle insinuation here is that JREC’s age makes it a bad school facility worthy of demolition, while a new structure is inherently better (or at least attractive enough to staff and students to uproot and move them 35 blocks downtown).
It’s disheartening to see age being used as an excuse to tear down an old school. School construction from the 1920-30s is often more solid, more insulated, more efficient than modern structures, and have proven to be quite adaptable. Additions are built and renovations alter usage, but the core structures have lasted well beyond the expectations of even those who created them. It’s hardly surprising that most schools built in this period are still functioning.
Speaking about the 1927 Columbia High School, the principal said, “It is solid, it is comfortable, it is clean and warm and it maintains an educational outlook that is both modern and classic. I don’t think we can ask for much more from our buildings.”
This certainly applies to JREC, and hopefully Hunter College will come to realize it as well.