Harry Potter would have liked this building, it’s almost magical with its whimsical “witch’s hat” dormers. We don’t often think of Queens and amusing buildings in the same thought, but that’s why this is such a great building. If you’ve got to go to school, what child wouldn’t want to attend one with such great details? But how did it come to be?
By the end of the 19th century, Jamaica was one of the largest towns within the independent county of Queens. This was before Queens became a borough in greater New York City, an event that happened in 1898.
Because of its position geographically, and its many convenient forms of public transportation including the Long Island Railroad, Jamaica was developing rapidly. Houses were going up, factories were employing local people, and there were soon a lot of children to educate.
The cities and towns that make up New York City, even before it was consolidated, have had a long history of public education. Jamaica had offered public education to its children since the late 1700s.
Unfortunately, that education was segregated, with separate white and Negro schools. That would remain true even as this fine building was considered, and built. The black students all were forced to go to a separate Colored School. That would not change until 1900.
Public education only extended to primary school. The idea of high school was not popular among New York’s educators until after the Civil War. Before that, if higher education was desired, private schools were available.
It was believed that basic grammar school education was enough to educate the general workforce. Higher education was for those who could pay for it, or the lucky student who was sponsored. But as the technology and amount of knowledge needed to succeed grew after the war, educators conceded that public high school was a growing necessity. It wasn’t mandatory, but it would be there, and free.
The first high schools were never designed to take every one of age, so they were not built to be that large. But all cities soon found out how wrong they were about how many people wanted an education. There was not a high school built in the entire city that was not too small within two years of opening. This would be no different.
The Jamaica City Fathers voted to build a new school on Hillside Avenue in 1895. Originally it was to hold all grades, but in the back of their minds, the lower grades would get another new school, and this would remain the high school.
They chose Brooklyn architect William B. Tubby to design it. Mr. Tubby was enjoying a well-deserved reputation as one of Brooklyn’s finest architects. He’s best known for his work for industrialist Charles Pratt, the founder of Pratt Institute, and in his day, Brooklyn’s wealthiest man.
Tubby designed several landmarked buildings on the Pratt campus, most notably the Library, as well as the Charles W. Pratt mansion, a masterpiece of Romanesque Revival design on Clinton Avenue in Clinton Hill, built as a wedding present for the great man’s son. He became a family friend, and would also design Charles Pratt Senior’s mausoleum in Great Neck, as well as many other fine buildings in Brooklyn for the Pratts and other clients.
In addition, he also designed many civic buildings, such as firehouses and libraries. Outside of Brooklyn, he was active in wealthy suburbs of Connecticut and Long Island. He had an excellent reputation, and his choice was indicative of the care the school committee took in building a school that Jamaica would be proud of.
Civic leaders of that day cared very much about what their public buildings looked like. Sometimes, I think we’ve lost that discernment. They wanted to not only have a fine building that fostered education, they wanted a showpiece that showed the world that Jamaica was not a sleepy backwater, with no sophistication, but a player. Tubby’s design would give them urban street cred, as it were.
Tubby loved to reference historical traditions into his work. Some of his police and fire stations have strong Dutch and Flemish influences, harkening back to New Amsterdam’s Dutch past. Here at the Jamaica High School, he uses the familiar Dutch stepped gables, as well as the narrow dormers and the central bell tower, which he highlighted with odd, peaked “hats.”
The design also incorporated important school elements, such as lots of windows for natural light and ventilation. By mixing all of these details up, Tubby created a familiar Dutch Revival feel with a modern simplicity and elegance. It’s a beautiful school, and was finished in 1897.
In 1904, the stairway wings were added to both sides of the building, to correspond to new code regulations. They actually enhance the Dutch ziggurat steps motif of the building. By that time, the school was already too small. As planned, the primary grades were moved into another building.
A few years later, the school was still too small. The population of Jamaica doubled. Annexes had to be added to this school, and all of the system’s other schools. By 1927, the city had built a much larger new high school for Jamaica, itself an historic landmark today, and a great building of its own.
This school was used for a number of different schools since then. It was named the Jamaica Continuation School, the Jamaica Vocational High School and a separate vocational school for girls. Today, it is an alternative high school called the Jamaica Learning Center.
Today the building looks much as it did in 1904. Only air conditioning units in the dormers and elsewhere mar William Tubby’s great design. The building was designated as an individual landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2013. The school’s address is 162-02 Hillside Avenue, in the block between 162nd and 163rd Streets in Jamaica.
(Top photograph: Peter Greenberg for Wikipedia)