Palatial Schools for the Progressive Era

From factories to palaces, a biography of school architect CBJ Snyder, opens a view into a lost and glorious world of public education in New York City. Early 20th century progressives believed that mass public education could reconcile democracy and excellence. Their hopes shaped the 408 new schools and additions that Snyder designed during his tenure from 1891 to 1922 as superintendent of school buildings for New York City. To some extent, the hopes of progressives have been fulfilled. Some Snyder schools, such as Erasmus Hall and Morris High, produced long lists of notable alumni despite being neighborhood schools and not examination schools. Snyder’s biographer, Jean Arrington, invites us to consider the contribution of design to excellence in education.

Three factors account for the extravagant scale of Snyder’s school building program. The first two were the revenue going into the city treasury and the pressures of increasing enrollment. In the current era, New York’s traditional district schools have been losing students since 2016, and this trend is expected to continue. During Snyder’s time, school enrollment grew by 25,000 students each year. During Snyder’s most productive period, 1899–1914, enrollment nearly doubled and credits tripled. When his building program was going full steam ahead, a new Snyder-designed school opened every 23 days.

The third factor was the high ambitions of the progressive movement for public education. More children were going to school, not just because of immigration, but because of child labor laws and the increasing standardization of high school. Progressives didn’t want schools to just teach the basics of numeracy and literacy. Thus, school buildings needed to become complex and move away from the old design paradigm of the old “one-room schoolhouse” of undifferentiated space towards one of multiple specialized spaces and features. Snyder and his fellow progressives embraced vocational education — much more than 21st-century school departments — that required spaces for training in carpentry, sewing, millinery and plumbing. Progressives have also, with equal fervor, embraced intellectual and artistic achievement for its own sake. This required libraries, laboratories, study rooms, music rooms and art studios. The Snyder crowd was enthusiastic about gymnasiums and playgrounds, and not only to help kids let off steam, but also to teach sportsmanship and fair play, traditionally considered aristocratic values. Snyder and the Progressives pushed to improve the Jacob Riisian physical factory conditions of 19th century schools, poor lighting, classrooms without desks, “inadequate and filthy bathrooms”.

Sad to say, the author of From factories to palacesJohn Arington, deceased only a few months before the publication of the book. His book will help rekindle interest in CBJ Snyder, a name mostly unknown in public education circles, even though about 20% of New York City public school students are still learning at one of the schools that he built. The New York City Encyclopedia has no entry for Snyder, a striking oversight for a man whose contribution to New York’s built environment gives Robert Moses a run for his money.

The most interesting discussions in the book focus on Snyder’s conception of schools as community centers. He built elaborate auditoriums on the ground floor to accommodate evening educational programs for the schools’ immigrant communities. Attendance was strong: “The school system offered unique lectures and lecture series on topics such as great composers, the value of vaccinations, the development of Japan as a nation, and the architecture of New York, with lantern slides. In 1903 alone, one million working men and women attended 3,300 lectures, the majority in public schools. A vision of civic unity is emerging here, achieved through the promotion of a culture that is both shared and valued. Our society today is more fractured and the outlook is bleaker for immigrant assimilation and high culture (now considered a counterculture). We expect less from our schools. If schools around the world could achieve the basics of numeracy and literacy, even just that, we would be thrilled. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the achievements of the progressive movement were real. Once upon a time, Americans could and did have nice things.

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