Building of the Day: 760 Prospect Place

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Public School 138, originally the Brooklyn Training School for Teachers
Address: 760 Prospect Place, also 783 Park Place
Cross Streets: Nostrand and Rogers Avenues
Neighborhood: Crown Heights North
Year Built: 1902-1907
Architectural Style: Collegiate Renaissance Revival
Architect: C.B.J. Snyder
Other Work by Architect: Many, many schools in 5 boroughs, including Erasmus Hall HS, John Jay HS, PS 93, the Westinghouse HS, additions to Girls HS, Boys HS, and many other Brooklyn schools, as well as old Stuyvesant HS in Manhattan, among others.
Landmarked: No

The story: In 1895, William Henry Maxwell, who would soon become the first Superintendent of the unified New York City Schools, was instrumental in getting a law passed in the State Senate that required all NY teachers to “be graduates of a recognized high school, and also of a school for the professional training of teachers, or from institutions of equal or higher rank offering similar instruction.” After consolidation, in 1898, New York City’s high school curriculum offered the option of a three year course of study which was preparation for entrance into a normal college or a specialized teacher’s training school. There were only three high schools in the entire city that had this program. One was in Manhattan, the other in Queens, and this was Brooklyn’s Training School for Teachers.

Ours was actually the first, established in 1885, when Brooklyn was still an independent city, with its own Board of Education. The first training school was at PS 4, later PS 69, with 2 separate practice schools in two separate buildings. In 1902, the first dedicated teacher training school, with attached model school, the only one of its kind in the city, was begun here. The result was this enormous “H” shaped school which spans the entire block between Prospect and Park Places, between Nostrand and Rogers Avenues. The Park Place side of the school was the teaching school, the Prospect Place side was the model school where the fledgling teachers learned to actually teach, joined by a wide corridor that connected the two buildings.

The architect, C.B.J. Snyder, was appointed the Superintendent of School Buildings for Manhattan in 1891. When the city consolidated, he was put in charge of building in all five boroughs, a job he performed with amazing results. By the time he retired, he had designed over 400 different school or education related projects, all throughout the city, becoming New York’s greatest school architect. He believed schools had to have sufficient natural light, ventilation, and adequate classroom size in order to be effective in educating.

He was a pioneer in the “H” shaped school, which enabled large buildings to be built midblock, without losing precious light or sacrificing windows and space. He also championed various uses of fireproof materials, and other engineering techniques that would improve the physical structure, as well as keep costs down. On top of that, his schools were beautiful, models of civic pride, in Collegiate Gothic, Renaissance Revival and neo-Federal styles. There are no ugly CBJ Snyder schools.

The Brooklyn Teacher’s Training School opened in 1907, training a new generation of elementary school teachers, most of whom were the children of immigrants. In 1920, the school was renamed the Maxwell Training School, in honor of Superintendent William H. Maxwell, who had died that year. The school curriculum consisted of theoretical study of the principles and history of education, psychology, observation of teachers and “practice teaching” in the model school next door, which was operated by the teacher’s school.

Upon graduation, the student took an examination for a teaching license which was necessary for the city and state. These schools were a fast track to becoming a licensed elementary school teacher, an education provided free of charge, with both theoretical and real classroom experience, and pay for student teaching. It was an innovative and progressive way for New York City to get many of the great number of elementary school teachers needed for a rapidly growing student population in the first three decades of the 20th century. At one point, two-thirds of the city’s elementary school teachers were the products of one of the three Teacher’s Training Schools run by the Board of Education in New York City. The program was a model for other cities.

Eventually, however it was cursed by its own success. As standards of education rose, the city extended the program from one to two, then three years. (This is after high school, not instead of it) The city now had a growing surplus of elementary teachers, with the numbers rising each year. In 1931, the city reorganized the program, turning it into a four year bachelor’s degree program in pedagogy. But with the Great Depression, the number of teachers without jobs grew so great that in 1933, the city ended this great experiment, and closed all three Teacher’s Training Schools, returning them, in some form, back into the school building pool.

This building became Public School 138, an elementary school serving the very large Crown Heights community. I have several friends, now in their 50’s, who remember the school well, attending it from kindergarten through eighth grade. Today, like most of NYC’s schools, it now has several specialized programs and at least one charter school inside. It received some well needed restoration in 2011-12, with replacement of skylights, windows and restoration of the auditorium, among other things. This was carried out by the firm of Technico Construction Services, under the auspices of the NYC School Construction Authority. In researching this building, I discovered that in 1908, a Moller 3 keyboard, 44 stop, pipe organ was installed, presumably in the auditorium. I wonder if it is still there. GMAP

(Photograph: Park Place side, Greg Snodgrass for Property Shark)

Prospect Place side of school. Photo: Greg Snodgrass for Property Shark

9 Comment

  • Interesting to learn about teacher training in earlier days. Hard to imagine 18 year olds functioning as full-fledged teachers today, but people in most walks of life did grow up earlier then (and they did even a few decades ago when I came of age.) Some of my best teachers, in hindsight, were new teachers, right out of college – not yet cynical, mean, or tired of teaching.

  • Montrose, As you know I attended this school — but only for the second and third grades before I started P.S. 9’s “Intellectually Gifted” Program for grades four through six. Before then, I was at P.S. 41 on Dean Street for kindergarten and first grade. In other words, a complete Crown Heights’ public school education!

    I recall the “teachers” wing converted to private prep-school use. Teenage boys in their tweed jackets would sit on the auditorium’s balcony above us public-school kids in the orchestra seats below. We never mixed, but only looked up and down at each other. Odd, but I’m quite sure about it. Perhaps there was a building nearby being renovated for them so they had to be housed temporarily with us. Could it have been Poly Prep? Today you wrote about a private school in Crown Heights that built a club in Brooklyn Heights. Could it have been that one?

    In any case, P.S. 138 had the reputation of being a “progressive” school, perhaps because of its former relationship to the training academy. Advertisements for apartments in Crown Heights as late as the 1930s touted its quality. By the early 1960s, there was still a sense of high purpose to the place. And teachers lived in the neighborhood, which was important for the kids.

    Two very stylish twins, teachers at 138, lived on my block on Pacific Street in Number 1296. This was the era when all young women in Brooklyn aspired to be Jackie Kennedy. Whenever the two turned the corner at Nostrand Avenue in their well-tailored suits, every foul-mouthed boy on the block shut his trap and stood erect until they passed, nodding respecfully and hoping for a smile. We always got one. And as soon as the two disappeared into their lobby, we were back to epithets.

    My brother always turns wistful about school days. He followed a couple of years behind me at every school all the way through Stuyvesant. “Public schools were good back then!” he likes to say. But I’m not sure about that. We were the sons of a PhD who meticulously guided us to every good teacher, class and program available, just as well-educated parents do today. Our raw materials were no different from that of our friends, so it was largely luck that got me through the Ivy League.

    It’ll be interesting to see what happens at 138 as Crown Heights gets more and more “gentrified.” Apparently P.S. 9, where for three years I had the best teacher in my life, Miss “W,” has regained its reputation as the neighborhood around it’s grown richer. I’m conflicted about that. Why shouldn’t high-quality schools be delivered as a right to all kids?

    But as Lani Guinier at Harvard writes, if you want to know a students’ long-term academic success, just look at the wealth of her parents — or better, yet, her grandparents. And as the country splits between those who can afford all the coaching and test prep services for competitive high schools and colleges and those who can’t, it’s likely to get worse.

    • interesting comment. PS 138 is a well-rated school these days. It has just recently been “co-located” with a moneyed (but also well-rated) charter school network that is notorious for being exclusionary in the buildings they share. plus ca change, i suppose. it’s a beautiful building, to be sure!

      as for PS 9, you’re right about its reputation having been restored. But it actually has less money now that the neighborhood is richer. why? Because it’s lost its Title I funding as the population grew more affluent, and yet the population isn’t so affluent to make up that gap of $100s of Ks. But PS 9 is also stocked with veteran teachers, many of whom have been around the school for a decade or more, an energetic and open-minded principal who is committed to improving the school while maintaining its diversity, and parents who have put in a lot of sweat equity into supporting the principal and the teachers, and bringing new ideas to fruition. I’m not discounting the extent to which wealthier parents makes the latter part more achievable, but in my experience, relative wealth of the community is only part of the puzzle.

      • Had a whiskey with brother man tonight in an East Side hotel bar.

        As always, he was smart and on point.

        Let Bloomberg endow a 16-billon dollar (or whatever he’s worth) extra-curricular program for all the city’s public-school kids, giving them access to arts, science and recreational activities from 3pm to 9pm and through the weekends.

        Wouldn’t that be the right legacy for the “education mayor”?

        Brother man was serious (and, as a former Salomon Brothers type, knows the power of money).

        Imagine it: a blanket of enrichment programs across all New York that makes poor kids competitive with rich kids!

        Not that’ll ever happen!

  • And, a tip o’the Hatlo hat to Jean Arrington, who was taken on the under-estimated C. B. J. Snyder as a multi-year research project. –Christopher

  • Beautiful building. I attended private schools so whenever I imagine Brooklyn Public School teachers, Woody Allen’s Brooklyn teachers from “Annie Hall” pop into my head.

  • I went to P.S. 138 from 9/40-1/47. In those post depression days there were not enough neighborhood kids to fill the school so the 4th floor was not used. There was no lunchroom and we walked home for lunch or ate in the corner drugstore (some) when it rained. We had “terms” not “years” then, allowing a child to begin school in Feb. if her birthday so indicated. And, being an under-populated school, we had only one class to a grade; our principal, M. Lustgarten, would skip a few kids into the next grade when class sizes needed to be evened out. I skipped a few times, as did my sister, so I entered H.S. in Feb. 1947, 3 months short of 13. That was common in many elementary schools in those days. (The actor, Alan Arkin, was in 2A and 2B with me and he is my age!)
    [My aunt, b. 1905, went to Maxwell Training School — which was not in use and empty when I attended P.S. 138 on Prospect Pl.]
    The students were mostly middle, middle class and mainly Protestant and Jewish, since almost all Brooklyn Catholic kids went to Catholic schools. The only “negro” student, a girl, was embraced by the Jewish girls tho there were really no religious splits. There was a feeling of unity and I don’t remember any bullying. We were there, of course, during WWII when there also existed a deep neighborhood sense of community. (The war was tracked closely in school and I still get teary when I hear or read the, familiar to me, names of obscure Pacific Islands.)
    The school lacked a gym teacher and gym and no real playground, only a hard concrete backyard. There was no innovative teaching but, as obedient children, we managed to learn quite a bit. And I realize now, as a white child (oblivious then of segregation), I had a relatively privileged education.

    I have been well aware of CBJ Snyder’s reputation and tried before to find out if he did 138. I’m very pleased that it is a Snyder school, even if it is not one of the beauties. Thank you for that info!