Walkabout with Montrose: Master of Schools, JW Naughton

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In celebration of a new school year, a look at some of the best school buildings in the city of Brooklyn, and the man who designed them.

Brooklyn has been home to schools since the Dutch settled here in the 1600’s. The town of Williamsburgh opened the second school in the New Amsterdam colony in 1662, which was located on the corner of North 2nd St and Bushwick Ave, and the town was the site of the first Brooklyn public school, in 1826. The City of Brooklyn, having incorporated in 1855, operated its own Board of Education, and established the position of Superintendent of Buildings of the B of E for the City of Brooklyn. In 1879, James W. Naughton succeeded Samuel B. Leonard as Superintendent. For almost 20 years, Naughton designed ALL of the schools built in Brooklyn, numbered at over 100.

James W. Naughton was an immigrant success story. Born in Ireland, his family immigrated to Brooklyn when he was 8. He was educated in Brooklyn public and private schools, and at 15, he moved to Milwaukee to apprentice to architects J&A Douglas. In 1859, he enrolled in the University of Wisconsin for two years, and then finished his architectural schooling at Cooper Union. He was very active in Brooklyn politics, and from 1874-76 he served as the Superintendent of Buildings for the City of Brooklyn, until taking the Department of Education post, which he held from 1879 until his death in 1898. Many of his most important schools still exist, and comprise some of the most beautiful and significant civic buildings in Brooklyn

Girl’s High School, at 475 Nostrand Ave, in Bedford Stuyvesant, was built in 1885-6, and is a masterpiece of Victorian Gothic and Second Empire style. In the mid 1800’s a battle raged between those who thought public education should only provide the basics, and progressives who felt public schools should provide a higher educational environment beyond elementary school. Girl’s High was designed as a compromise Grammar School, which, even before it opened, was realized to be too small, so only female students were sent there. Naughton’s school provided the proper environment, not only to young ladies, but for the prosperous neighborhood of Bedford, which was growing at a fast rate at that time. The boys stayed downtown until the Boy’s High School was built in 1891. These two schools were the first public secondary schools in NYC, and are the prototypes for the first high schools built later in Manhattan.

Boy’s High School, at nearby Marcy and Putnam Streets, is James Naughton’s finest work. It is a monumental example of the Romanesque Revival style, characterized by round arched openings, contrasting smooth and rough surfaced stone work, and most of all, powerful massing, often swelled with rounded bays, porches, and towers. In 1891, many of Brooklyn’s most important buildings were built in this style, including the Fire Headquarters, Main Post Office, churches and office buildings, as well as prominent homes designed by CPH Gilbert, Montrose Morris and others. Brooklyn’s finest public school deserved no better, and Naughton delivered, creating a large school which would open with 782 students in 22 classrooms, a brick and terra cotta masterpiece that is still regarded as one of Brooklyn’s architectural treasures.

While the two high schools are the best of Naughton’s work, many of his other schools are greats, as well. The best of this group may be his PS 9 Annex, on Vanderbilt and Sterling, built in 1895. As Prospect Hts developed as an upper middle class enclave with new homes, Grand Army Plaza, Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Academy of Arts and Science nearby, the new school was seen as a complement to its neighbors. It is now highly desirable apartments. Other schools include PS 70 (1880), also in Bed Stuy, heavily damaged by fire, and rebuilt in 2005 by Robert AM Stern, its twin, PS 71(1888), in Williamsburg, now the Beth Jacob School, and PS 73, at the corner of Rockaway and MacDougal (1885), praised for its Rundbogenstil, or rounded arch style. All of the schools mentioned so far are now individual landmarks. In addition, Naughton is also responsible for PS 15, PS 76, PS 79, PS 7, PS 65K, PS 108, PS 107 on 8th Ave, in Park Slope (1894), and many, many more, although as years went by, enrollment grew, and new Superintendents put their mark on the school system, now part of the Board of Education of the City of New York. Many of the Naughton buildings were torn down and replaced with newer, larger schools. James Naughton still leaves behind an impressive legacy, one that should be studied and emulated by students, as well as the school architects of today. Take a look at the many historic and contemporary photos on my Flickr page.

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