Past and Present: The Bedford Academy in Crown Heights North

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Bedford was one of the town of Brooklyn’s oldest communities, with Dutch, then English settlement here in the mid 1600s. By the end of the 19th century, it had developed as a large, sprawling and successful neighborhood.

Bedford’s importance could be measured by its wealthy and upper-middle-class residents and their fine homes, as well as the abundance of churches, schools, clubs and organizations, and retail and industrial spaces.

Brooklyn’s first high school, Girls High School, was in Bedford, as was the even more impressive Boys High School, several years later. The headquarters of the Brooklyn Public Library was here too, along with many large elementary schools.

Like most upscale neighborhoods, Bedford also had its share of private learning institutions. Almost anyone with impressive credentials and a building could open a school, and if they were fortunate to generate a large following, that school could grow.

The classified section of the Brooklyn Eagle in the late 19th century has advertisements for a multitude of private academies and schools, with offerings including general studies, foreign languages, accounting, music and dance, religion and military studies.

Some of the private homes that served as schools are still standing today. But schools more often had their own public buildings, and today many of those are gone.

Crown Heights Brooklyn -- Bedford Academy Physical Education History

1886 Brooklyn Eagle ad

The Bedford Heights Institute

In 1886, James W. Morey established the Bedford Heights Institute, a private academy for boys, located at the corner of Atlantic and New York avenues. Morey had been a teacher at Brooklyn’s elite Polytechnic Institute, downtown.

The Institute was a day school, but it also had room in the building to board six boys. The Brooklyn Eagle noted that primary, academic and college preparatory courses were given, accompanied by military drill instruction.

Not much is known about Mr. Morey, but according to the society pages, he and his wife were wealthy enough to summer outside of the city, and they were mentioned as attending various society events.

Crown Heights Brooklyn -- Bedford Academy Physical Education History

1888 map via New York Public Library

The school was housed in a semi-detached row house that had several extensions added to the back. It appears in this 1888 map, shown above. The twin house next door still stands. The school’s address was 63-67 New York Avenue.

In 1890, the school was sold to Dr. George Rodeman. He changed the name of the school to the Bedford Academy. This must have been somewhat confusing, as there was also an establishment nearby called the Bedford Riding Academy.

It was located not far away, on Bedford Avenue between Atlantic Avenue and Brevoort Place. The Riding Academy was an upscale equestrian school that offered riding instructions and sponsored horse shows and exhibitions. The name was often shortened to Bedford Academy in the press. They were not connected in any way.

Crown Heights Brooklyn -- Bedford Academy Physical Education History

Photo via The Eagle and Brooklyn, 1893

The Bedford Academy

The idea of physical education in schools was introduced to America by the late-19th century, mostly influenced by Germany and the Nordic countries. German physical education was especially popular, due in part to the many German immigrants in the U.S., and their tradition of Turn Verein gymnastic clubs and gymnastics in general.

Dr. Rodeman was a German immigrant himself, hailing from Posen. He came to the United States in 1885 after graduating from the University of Berlin and the Royal Gymnasium. He studied at Harvard, receiving a master’s in the arts, followed by a doctorate in philosophy.

After buying the Brooklyn school, Dr. Rodeman began to improve on the institution’s physical education program, which, up until that point, mostly consisted of military-style drills.

Most schools, public and private, had drill instruction for both boys and girls. Some schools were more organized than others, but most schools had a period of time marked off where the kids were sent outside to march around.

They learned how to march in time and cadence. Some schools organized drill teams with uniforms, flags and banners and fancy marching. Other schools combined drill instruction with organized games as forms of physical education.

After Dr. George Rodeman took over the school, he expanded the facility and introduced German-style gymnastics to the curriculum, and his was the first school to have an outdoor gymnastics program.

Rodeman purchased the lot next door and set up an outdoor gymnastics floor. The Brooklyn Eagle photographed it for an article that appeared in 1890. The photo shows climbing ropes, rings, uneven bars and balance beams.

Rodeman also expanded the drill team with uniforms. Some boys can be seen lining the fence in front of the gymnasium. As principle, Rodeman explained that his outdoor gymnastics program would be carried on for six months out of the year. It would move indoors in the winter to a large assembly room in the school.

The Bedford Academy was the only school in the United States with an outdoor gymnasium, and was the first of its kind. It was all part of the new motto for the school: “Individualism and Thoroughness.”

The gymnastics program gave the school press, but his drill team won awards all over Brooklyn. They were top-notch marchers, competing with other public and private school drill teams. Most of the student athletes were members of the school’s Athletic Club.

Crown Heights Brooklyn -- Bedford Academy Physical Education History

1904 Brooklyn Eagle ad

By 1902, Dr. Rodeman had expanded the school to include four departments: kindergarten, primary, intermediate and academic. Vocal music was also a special feature of school life. In many ways, this was a very German school, as kindergarten, vocal arts and physical culture were all German innovations to American education.

Crown Heights Brooklyn -- Bedford Academy Physical Education History

1904 map via New York Public Library

What Came Afterward

In spite of the school’s successes, or perhaps because of them, the school seems to have disappeared after 1904. I found no evidence that it relocated. The map of this block that year shows the buildings were now the annex for P.S. 41, which was a block away, on the corner of Dean Street.

It looks as if at some point, Rodeman had torn down the semi-detached house and bought up the lots to the corner of Atlantic. He put up a much larger school building and built the outdoor gymnasium. The NYC school system took over their facility as the second annex for the overcrowded P.S. 41. In 1905, a bid was put out for building five more classrooms on the lot.

Crown Heights Brooklyn -- Bedford Academy Physical Education History

Contractor bidding announcement in Brooklyn Eagle, 1905

In 1907, the city built P.S. 93 on New York Avenue between Herkimer Street and Atlantic Avenue. It was designed to take some of the load away from P.S. 41, which remained open until the 1960s. It was torn down to become a senior citizens’ home.

The old P.S. 41 school annex, formerly the old Bedford Academy, was also torn down. In 1919, the Brown-Holmes Garage opened on the corner of Atlantic and New York.

The lot next door, 67 New York Avenue, had a smaller garage on it in 1914. That building was replaced by the current garage in the 1920s. Who knows how long it will be before both of them are replaced by something else?

[Top photo: Google Maps]

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