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Preservation Alert: P.S. 199, by Edward Durell Stone (1963)

The public school on Manhattan's Upper West Side could be facing demolition if a developer takes up New York City's offer to sell the site.

By Fred A. Bernstein
March 22, 2013


Among the sites the New York City Department of Education has recently put up for sale is a 99,000-square-foot lot on 70th Street west of Broadway. Developers are being offered a chance to build a 600,000-square-foot apartment building on the 425-foot-wide parcel near Lincoln Center. But that would mean tearing down P.S. 199, a public school designed by Edward Durell Stone. In 2005, I visited the school and wrote the following account for Oculus magazine. Especially given the changes made to Stone's Huntington Hartford Museum on Columbus Circle and his General Motors Building on Fifth Avenue, the school deserves the attention of preservationists. To its credit, CBRE, in its offering on behalf of the city, notes that “there may be opposition to the demolition of the school.” Let’s hope!

 

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Edward Durell Stone began his career as an “orthodox” modernist (his Museum of Modern Art, with Philip Goodwin, and his Conger Goodyear House, both from the 1930s, are emblematic of his International Style roots). But Stone’s greatest success came in mid-century with a series of classically-inspired buildings – from his American Embassy in New Delhi (1954) to the Kennedy Center (completed in 1971). Neither of his best-known Manhattan works, the General Motors Building, with its awkward plaza, or his Huntington Hartford Museum, with its unusual “lollipop” details, is as successful as those strongly horizontal, Parthenon-like buildings.

In fact, the clearest expression in New York of Stone's aesthetic may be a public school building on West 70th Street, just a hop from Lincoln Center (a complex that was itself profoundly influenced by Stone).

P.S. 199, completed in 1963, provided Stone with the kind of site and program his approach required. The site was large enough to permit a freestanding building, and the program dictated that he not build higher than three stories. Stone responded by forming 166 identical white brick piers into a 30-foot-high rectangular structure. The piers, 31 on the east and west sides of the building, 52 on the north and south – support a thin, flat roof that overhangs the building by an extravagant six feet. Groups of concentric squares inscribed beneath the overhang suggest classical patterning, highly atypical of modernist buildings of the 1960s. There are none of the grilles for which Stone was famous, but the long rows of closely spaced piers serve as a grille writ large. In fact, the 18-inch-deep piers make the building envelope (mostly glass, with black brick spandrels) invisible from acute angles. The main entrance, off-center on the north side of the building, is framed by five piers that are indistinguishable from all the others. (Indeed, from a distance, the only evidence of the entrance is a gap in the white-brick retaining wall around the site.)

Classrooms are arrayed along the exterior walls, with the building's windowless interior reserved for public spaces. A foyer bisects the ground floor. Despite the foyer’s low ceiling, Stone tried to give it grandeur with marble wall panels, a white terrazzo floor, and two rows of round ceiling fixtures that, in plan, would have resembled colonnades. The double-height auditorium boasts a draped ceiling of metal disks. Still in perfect condition, this hanging screen is Stone at his glamorous best.

The rest of the building is less special. Thanks to the deep piers outside their windows, the classrooms are a bit more claustrophobic than those in other schools of the era. But Stone’s building contains a few surprises. Above a dreary ground floor cafeteria is a double-height gymnasium. With the piers tall enough to read as piers (and not mere mullions, as in the classrooms), the gym feels monumental. On the third floor, classrooms have extra headroom – and the extra windows to go with it. The center of the top floor (actually the auditorium roof) houses an open-air playground. That means the top floor, a rectangular donut, is flooded with light from four inner and four outer facades.

Like any school built 40 years ago, the building has been modified to meet changing conditions. (Among other practical problems: the advent of personal computers required hundreds of additional electric outlets.) Most of the interventions have been handled with discretion. But a few seem overly obtrusive; surely Stone didn’t expect doors set into the white marble foyer walls to be painted baby blue, or wooden picture molding to be hung across the marble. (The molding makes it possible to show student artwork without drilling through marble.) Then again, this is a school, and student work is its raison d’être. Fortunately, Stone’s architectural ideas are so strong that a few collages can’t obscure them.

 

(Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of Oculus magazine, the quarterly journal of the AIA New York Chapter; reprinted with permission.)

 

 

Fred Bernstein has degrees in architecture (from Princeton) and law (from NYU) and writes about both subjects.

 

 

Other columns by Bernstein on ArchNewsNow:

 

Move the Farnsworth House

Mies built the Farnsworth in spitting distance of the mighty Fox River, and the house is paying a price for his hubris.

An Open Letter to Susan Szenasy re: Frank Gehry

I love and admire you. But I think you are wrong about Frank Gehry.

 

Eytan Kaufman Hudson World Bridge

An architect's proposal to span the Hudson River would be a gathering place like no other.

 

Second Look: Pavilion and Colonnade Apartments by Mies van der Rohe, 1960

Newark, NJ: Current news about "starchitects" designing high-rise housing in New York is at an all-time high, but Mies did it across the Hudson River 46 years ago.

Second Look: Tracey Towers by Paul Rudolph, 1972

Bronx, NY: How did Rudolph, a restless and challenging architectural mind, end up doing subsidized housing in the Bronx?

Op-Ed: The 2012 New York Olympics is lost. Long live the 2014 New York World's Fair.

 

Second Look: New York Hall of Science by Wallace K. Harrison/Harrison and Abramovitz, 1964; Polshek Partnership Architects, 2004

Queens, NY: Its power undiminished after 40 years, a 20th century cathedral to science is about to be rediscovered as a luminous addition debuts this week.

Beauty in Garbage: Naka Incineration Plant by Yoshio Taniguchi

Hiroshima: An incineration plant is devised as real-time science museum and tourist destination (complete with waterfront park).

Second Look: George Washington Bridge Bus Station / Pier Luigi Nervi, 1963

One of Nervi's few completed projects outside Italy is a superb example of the poetry he wrought from ferro-concrete.

INSIGHT: The Might-Have-Been Memorial

 



(click on pictures to enlarge)

Fred A. Bernstein

P.S. 199 entrance

Fred A. Bernstein

West 70th Street façade

Fred A. Bernstein

Auditorium ceiling with draped metal discs

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