Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: P.S. 93, the William H. Prescott School
Address: 31 New York Avenue
Cross Streets: Herkimer Street and Atlantic Avenue
Neighborhood: Bedford Stuyvesant
Year Built: 1907
Architectural Style: Collegiate Gothic
Architect: C. B. J. Snyder
Other buildings by architect: Hundreds of schools in New York City, including Erasmus High School, old Stuyvesant High School, John Jay High School, an addition to Girls High School, and many, many others
The story: Charles B. J. Snyder arguably had more influence on our city than scores of other fine architects, both household names and unknown wonders. He designed New York City’s schools during a period of great building as well as innovations in education. His designs influenced school building throughout the country, and his thoughtful and scientific approach to matching architecture to the success of education has lasted long after he’s been gone and mostly forgotten. Thanks to a new appreciation of his work, “Snyder Schools” are once again seen as the innovative buildings they were designed to be. Almost every neighborhood in the entire city has, or had, a Snyder school, maybe even more than one. This school is one of his lesser known works, but is a fine Snyder school nonetheless.
C. B. J. Snyder became Superintendent of School Building in Manhattan in 1891. In 1898, Brooklyn and the other boroughs joined Manhattan as a united New York City, and Snyder became the Superintendent of School Building for the New York City Board of Education. Snyder schools can be found in every borough, as he established a rapid school building program designed to meet the education needs of a growing city-wide population with thousands of school aged children.
Schools were a city’s monument to civilization, the path to a better society, Snyder believed, so his schools were designed to be beautiful and inspirational, as well as practical. He knew safety, fireproofing, light and ventilation were necessary to education, and as an engineer as well as an architect, he designed his buildings to meet all of those standards. Fireproof terra-cotta brick was used in construction, and all Snyder schools have large, expansive walls of windows to allow light and fresh air into the classrooms, made possible by steel skeleton construction.
He is famous for his “H” shaped buildings, which allowed light and windows in schools limited by space or with surrounding buildings. P.S. 93 is not an “H” building, as it sits alone on a coveted corner lot, allowing outside windows to take up the entire façade — front, back and sides. It is in his “English Collegiate Gothic” style, reminiscent of the buildings of Oxford and Cambridge, and inspirational to parents and students alike as proof of education’s importance. Although not as fancy, or “Oxford-y” as Erasmus or some of his other high schools, this elementary school still has the symbolic ornament of those ancient halls of learning. The medieval scholars who flank the doors and the owl of wisdom indicate that education will be happening here. It’s a good school building and, fortunately, is well used. The reliefs of children also grace its walls.
Snyder retired in 1923 after designing over 400 buildings, including over 140 elementary schools. Over the years, many of his schools have been torn down and replaced by far lesser buildings, and some have been repurposed as housing or put to other uses. This one remains an elementary school, now named for William H. Prescott, a 19th century historian credited as the first American historian to bring scientific methods of research and documentation to the historic narrative. He was a great writer able to tell history as a good story, with meticulous research to back it up.
Like all New York City public schools, this one suffers from not enough room for recreation, and the usual overcrowding. It does have a decent reputation, and deserves press and community support. It serves pre-K through 5th grade. It’s also a polling place, and where I used to vote when I lived in Crown Heights. Voting is an important function in a civilized democracy. William Prescott no doubt thought so, as did C. B. J. Snyder. I do too — I urge everyone to vote today, get out there and celebrate our democracy and our great nation. Vote! GMAP