Building of the Day: 899-925 Flatbush Avenue

Original Erasmus Hall, in the quad of the new school. Photo: Piotr Redlinski for the New York Times.

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Erasmus Hall High School
Address: 899-925 Flatbush Avenue
Cross Streets: Church and Snyder Avenues
Neighborhood: Flatbush
Year Built: 1905-06, 1909-11, 1924-25, and 1939-40
Architectural Style: Collegiate Gothic
Architect: C. B. J. Snyder, with additions by William Gompert, Eric Kebbon
Other buildings by architect: CBJ Snyder designed many of NYC’s most iconic schools, including John Jay in Park Slope, old Stuyvesant HS, Manhattan, Washington Irving HS, DeWitt Clinton HS, also Old Board of Ed Building on Livingston St. Brooklyn.
Landmarked: Yes, individual landmark (2003)

The story: This is Brooklyn’s most well-known school, with a roster of illustrious alumni that reads like a Who’s Who of famous New Yorkers. Barbara Streisand, Eli Wallach, Lanie Kazan, Barbara Stanwyck, Beverly Sills, Mickey Spillane, Susan Hayward, Neil Diamond, chess master Bobby Fischer, and many others all walked these halls as teenagers. They often get the attention, but the school building itself is as remarkable as the people who attended it, as is the man who designed it.

Charles B. J. Snyder was the revolutionary and innovative Superintendent of School Construction for the NYC Board of Education between 1891 and 1923. During that time, he revolutionized school design, making standard many of the architectural, structural and educational innovations in school building designs that schools across the country still adhere to. We may not have been educated in a Snyder building, but most of us were schooled in a building influenced by his philosophies and innovations.

Erasmus has a storied past, going back to the Dutch settlers of Flatbush. The original Erasmus Hall was a private school for secondary education, the first chartered school of the kind in New York State, founded in 1787 by Rev. John Livingston and Senator John Vanderbilt. It was built on land donated by the Dutch Reformed Church, across the street. Among the donors for the school were Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. This original wood framed building, which still stands in the middle of the courtyard of the present school, served as the school for over 200 years. (With additions and annexes, of course) Today it is empty, looking for a purpose.

The still-private school began accepting girls in 1801, and in 1896, became part of the Brooklyn Public School system. When Brooklyn became part of Greater New York, in 1898, the Board of Education was mandated to create new high schools in all of the boroughs. Brooklyn was to get a new Erasmus Hall High School.

Snyder designed the new school in a quad that could be constructed around the old school building, which could still be used during construction. Under his instruction, in addition to numerous classrooms and labs, Erasmus would have an auditorium, a gymnasium, a library, and other modern amenities, as well as offices, toilet facilities, storage, etc. He planned the school in sections, each wing would add new classrooms and facilities, with the classrooms themselves facing into the quad, not out onto the street, to provide a more tranquil and non-distractive learning experience.

As the student body grew, so too did the school. The third section, which includes new gymnasia, a pool, labs and more classrooms, was put in by Snyder’s successor, William Gompert, in 1924-25, and the final section was built in 1939, and opened in 1940, designed by Eric Kebbon. Both Gompert and Kebbon simplified Snyder’s Collegiate Gothic design, but kept true to the spirit of the original, so that the entire school, including the Bedford Avenue side, is of a unified design. In order to accommodate the last part of the school, the original Hall had to be moved, and its additions torn down. It was used as administration, until building conditions got too bad. The Dept. of Ed says the funds to fix it can’t be spent on the building, as it will not be classrooms. Okay…

CPJ Snyder brought the Collegiate Gothic style, based on Cambridge and Oxford University’s architecture, to NYC’s public schools. Intended to inspire to greatness and American exceptionalism and assimilation, especially among the masses of new immigrant children, the style also had practical applications, as it cost less than Colonial Revival styles, and allowed for greater height and breadth of windows, allowing in natural light, a must in Snyder’s schools. The architecture sparkles and soars. The details on these buildings are just great, with visual treats everywhere. Erasmus Hall High school is still inspirational, and certainly remains a focal point on very busy Flatbush Avenue. GMAP

Original Erasmus Hall, in the quad of the new school. Photo: Piotr Redlinski for the New York Times.

CBJ Snyder's auditorium at Erasmus. Photo: Piotr Redlinski for the New York Times.

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