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

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