Building of the Day: 999 Jamaica Avenue

999 Jamaica Ave, FJLHS, 1

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Franklin K. Lane High School
Address: 999 Jamaica Avenue
Cross Streets: Dexter Court
Neighborhood: Cypress Hills
Year Built: 1936-37
Architectural Style: Neo-Colonial
Architect: Walter C. Martin, Superintendent of Buildings for the NYC Board of Education, and staff
Other Buildings by Architect: NYC schools built between 1928 and 1938
Landmarked: No

The story: Franklin J. Lane High School started out in a much smaller building on nearby Evergreen Avenue. It was housed in the old PS 85 building. By the end of the 1920s, this school, as well as many other high schools throughout the city, was bursting at the seams with students. Local politicians and school officials begged the Board of Ed to at least build an extension, and ground was obtained, but they dithered until at last it was decided that a new high school was needed instead. That was in 1931.

There were actually many heated fights over where the new high school would be located. There was strong support for the school to move to Bushwick, as well as a strong push to place the school in Queens. Both locations had very overcrowded schools. But at last it was decided to give the school to both boroughs. FKLHS actually strides the border between Brooklyn and Queens, with half of the school in each borough. More of it is in Brooklyn than Queens, so officially, it’s in Brooklyn. It was now 1935, and in the middle of the Great Depression. The city was given a massive federal subsidy in the form of WPA funding. Ground was finally broken for the new school in June of 1936.

The school was designed after Independence Hall in Philadelphia. School architecture had gone from the stately Collegiate Gothic designs of C.B.J. Snyder to the more “American” Georgian and Federal buildings of the Colonial period. For many people, then and now, the design of Franklin J. Lane constitutes the quintessential American school building. Because so many schools across the country were built with WPA funds in the 30’s, it’s not hard to see why people feel that way. My own high school in rural upstate NY was a proud Georgian-style school building that looked a lot like this, only much, much smaller.’

The school was named in honor of Franklin K. Lane, the Secretary of the Interior under President Woodrow Wilson. The National Park Service was established during his tenure in office. When the school was finished, it was one of the largest high school buildings in the world. Each of the four floors spans a quarter mile. To walk from one end to the other on all four floors would cover a mile. It had a huge gymnasium and auditorium, and large classrooms. The school could house almost 3,600 students. That’s a big school.

Over the next 70 years, the school was well known for its academic and athletics activity. One of the greatest stars to emerge from Lane was William “Red” Holzman, who was a star basketball player here, who then went on to become a bigger star at City College, an excellent player with the NBA, and finally, an award winning coach. The gymnasium was named after him. He graduated from high school here in 1938.

Other notables were Franklin A. Thomas, former president and CEO of the Ford Foundation, Sam Levenson; writer, journalist and TV host, baseball player Bob Grim, dancer/choreographer Jose Greco, actor Earl Hyman, actress Ann Jackson, and mobster John Gotti, who dropped out at the age of 16.

Unfortunately, New York City has a lot of problems when it comes to educating large amounts of students in a changing world. As the racial makeup of East New York changed, the problems at Franklin J Lane began. At first, in the late 1950s, it was black kids being ganged up on and beaten by white kids. But as the school’s black and Hispanic population soon became the majority, the educational and physical problems became more and more distressing. FKLHS became one of the worst high schools in the city.

Teachers, the unions, students, administration and parents were all fighting over ways to change the school in the wake of growing urban decay. By the 70s, the city was not spending money on much of anything, and the inner city high schools suffered more than any other schools. Finally, federal programs poured money into the school in an attempt to turn it around. For a while, FKLHS was a model of urban public education. It went back and forth, with some elite programs working really well, with very successful students, while other classes within the school produced nothing but poor results.

Finally, in 2004, FKLHS was called “New York City’s Worst School” on the front pages of the New York Daily News. By 2007, the school was phased out of existence. Today, the building houses four different high schools. They are The Academy for Innovative Technology, The Brooklyn Lab School, Cypress Hill Prep Academy, and Multicultural High School. Some are doing better than others. There is still a strong alumni association and on-line alumni sites. Many people there remember the good and bad days, but most of all remember what a beautiful, massive and impressive school Franklin J. Lane High School was. GMAP

(Photo:Franklin J. Lane Alumni Assoc.)

1937 Photo: Brooklyn Public Library

1937 Photo: Brooklyn Public Library

8 Comment

  • My old high school, Midwood in Brooklyn, was just like this. I would not be surprised if it were built around the same time.

  • A very interesting – if somewhat sobering – article.

    I did not know that FKL was initially located in Bushwick. Where exactly was the old PS 85 situated?

    Also, FKL was not the only entity to migrate from Bushwick to Cypress Hills/Wodhaven. Located right accross the street – actually Dexter Court – was the site of old Dexter Park, which was the home of the fabled semi-pro team, the Bushwicks, after that club was forced to vacate Wallace Park, which was situated along the Bushwick/Ridgewood border, after a fire devastated that wodden structure in the 1910’s. A housing complex now occupies this site.

    Finally, the reference to famous alumni and one-time Yankee pitcher Bob Grim got me to remember that he grew up along the Bushwick/Ocean Hills boundary, just north of Broadway Junction, and that his family owned a bar in that area.

  • My little sister and three cousins graduated from Lane in the late 90’s/early 2000’s. The school was like East Side High in the movie Lean on me, complete anarchy. The school had to bolt all the lockers shut because students would stash drugs and weapons in them (didn’t prevent them either way). Completely overrun with gangs, The Latin Kings would hold court in the back of the school, fights, shootings and stabbings happened pretty regularly. I remember when the walls of the back courtyard were covered almost top to bottom with huge graffiti pieces, the best writers in the city would go come to do these insane murals (FX crew especially). I went to summer school there once and I remember just being in awe of the old public school features, Brass door handles with the school name engraved, big wooden doors, huge windows with the old canvas pull down blinds, woodwork in the administrative offices. I went to Thomas Edison in Jamaica which was built in the 50’s so it lacked all the grand features, Jamaica High School which was right across the street rivals Franklin K. lane with 3 times the campus size. They have to be seen in person to really appreciate.

  • Here’s a video showing the handball walls back in 1994, you can see the back of the school building as well. The school administration allowed them to paint on those walls until around 1999 when they painted the whole thing and rehabbed the tennis courts.

  • We’ve been looking to buy out in Cypress Hills and happened to ride my bike past here a couple of weeks ago – amazing building. I hope they can figure out how to utilize this space. @colombianbeefbk is right – it has to be seen in person to appreciate it’s immensity.

  • side note: Harold Houdini (Machpelah cemetery) and Jackie Robinson (Cypress Hills Cemetery) are buried in the cemeteries next to the school.