Building of the Day: 11-19 Claver Place

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Former St. Peter Claver School, now the Brooklyn Waldorf School
Address: 11-19 Claver Place
Cross Streets: Corner Jefferson Avenue
Neighborhood: Bedford Stuyvesant
Year Built: 1931
Architectural Style: Art Deco
Architect: Henry V. Murphy. Refitting by Rogers Marvel Architects.
Other Buildings by Architect: Garage/ house at 152 Berkeley Pl, w/ Edward H. Lehmann, first four buildings of St. John’s University, Queens.
Landmarked: No, but should be

The story: The Irish have St. Patrick; black Catholics all over the world have St. Peter Claver. He is the patron saint of slaves, of Colombia and African-Americans. Pedro Claver Corbero was a Jesuit priest, born in 1580, who made it his mission to minister to the thousands of African captives who were brought into the harbors of Cartagena, Colombia, to be sold as slaves. He visited them in the stinking slave ships and in the holding cells on land, offering them food, what medicine he was able to administer, and whatever hope and encouragement he could offer. He also made it his life’s work to try to end the slave trade, and for 40 years, ministered to Africans brought to the New World, learning their culture and customs, caring for them as people, something very few others did at the time. Although he was never able to end slavery, his work and advocacy made conditions more humane, and he was known as the “Saint of Cartagena.” He died in 1654, and was canonized by the Church in 1888.

In 1921, St. Peter Claver Catholic Church was established on what was then Ormond Place, now Peter Claver Place, in Bedford Stuyvesant. It was the first Catholic church in Brooklyn established for an African American congregation, the brainchild of Rev. Bernard Quinn, its first pastor, and the Colored Catholic Club. Their first home was on Schermerhorn Street, in borrowed church space; and soon a new church was found, the current Peter Claver church, which has become a monument to black Catholic history. A school was soon founded, with classes held in nearby brownstone buildings. In 1931, this brand new and very modern school was built.

It is the Art Deco influenced work of Henry V. Murphy; a Pratt educated Brooklyn man, who spent most of his career designing building for the Catholic Church. Many of his buildings are in Brooklyn and Queens, among which, his four buildings for St. John’s University in Queens are the best known. His design for Immaculate Heart of Mary Church on Fort Hamilton Parkway in Windsor Terrace is very similar to this school, with a Gothic style as interpreted through a Deco lens. This building has many of the same features, and is quite elegant and strong. It is probably that blocky strength that gave the school the nickname “Claver Castle.”

The school was divided into three distinct spaces, classrooms, nun’s quarters and a gymnasium space with a community track. Reverend Quinn was eager to include the community into the church, and in addition to the school and community center, the church was involved with missions, orphanages and a summer camp on Long Island. Father Quinn died in 1940, and is now being considered for sainthood. His is a fascinating story that may be told in a later Walkabout. In later years, during the 60s and 70s, the church also had programs for young homeless mothers as well as a successful credit union. The school was in operation until 1988, when it was closed. The building was unused for another 20 years.

Last year, the school was chosen to be the home for the Brooklyn Waldorf School, a new independent elementary school. The architectural firm of Rogers Marvel was chosen to reconfigure the building to the needs of the school, with emphasis on sustainable and green construction and instruction. The children will be able to garden on the roof, among other things. The school prides itself on diversity in ethnicity and incomes, as well as creative teaching methods, and welcomes children from all across Brooklyn. GMAP

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