Historic Snyder School-Former Nursing Home-Given Away for Market-Rate Development
In August, 2014, Friends of the Lower East Side submitted an urgent Request for Evaluation to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) to calendar, without delay, the former Public School 20, designed by Charles B. J. Snyder, renowned architect and Superintendent of New York City School Buildings from 1891 to 1923. Our request was denied by the LPC, which found that “it has been significantly altered, and therefore does not rise to the level to merit designation as an individual New York City Landmark.”
The school building was purchased from the city in 1993, converted into a nursing home for AIDS patients, and renamed Rivington House. It closed in November, 2014. The building was sold to Allure Group for $28 million; At the time, Allure Grtoup assured the community that its intention was to operate a for-profit nursing home in the building. Allure paid $16 million to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) to lift a deed restriction requiring that the building be used as a non-profit facility. They then turned around and sold the building to the Slate Property Group for $128 million. This sequence of suspect transactions is under investigation by the Comptroller, the Department of Investigation, the State Attorney General and the US Attorney.
The historic structure, across from Sara D. Roosevelt Park, commands the full block front on the south side of Rivington Street from Eldridge to Forsyth Streets. Landmark designation would have ensured that a reuse would be sensitive to the significant architectural features of the building. Without such protection, it is a prime location for inappropriate development.
P. S. 20 opened in 1899 when the Lower East Side was a neighborhood of poor immigrant families speaking many different languages living in crowded, dark and decaying tenements. In contrast, the public schools designed by C. B. J. Snyder offered a rigorous education in classrooms that maximized natural light, fresh air and cross ventilation. The fifth story of P.S. 20 contained a library, reading room, separate gyms for girls and boys and manual training rooms for carpentry, drafting and modeling. The rooftop playground offered a large space for a variety of open-air activities, far above the congested and dirty streets below.
In this healthful and stimulating environment, dedicated teachers encouraged children to seize the opportunity to rise above deprivation and become creative and productive adults. This was especially true of P.S. 20 whose student body reads like a Whose Who in America. Neighborhood alumni include composer George Gershwin, four-term U.S. Senator Jacob Javits, journalist and author Harry Golden, actors Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni, and lyricist Irving Caesar.
Snyder’s 1898-99 Renaissance Revival style building exemplifies the high level of sophistication the city invested in its civic architecture. The five story symmetrical façade of the brick and terra cotta building is organized into five bays with two slightly recessed bays flanking a central bay. The first floor entrance in the central bay is marked by three arched openings with molded surrounds and supported by square piers with recessed panels. The entrance is flanked by rectangular window openings with flared terra cotta lintels and projecting keystones. The first floor of the central bay is further articulated by projecting horizontal bands of stone suggesting rustication. Flanking the entrance are two large, highly detailed terra cotta roundels in high relief. The east roundel is a representation of the seal of the City of New York. The west roundel has the incised word, “Excelsior” and includes numerous symbols appropriate for a school building including an eagle with scales of justice suspended from its beak, a lyre, a book, a globe, a lamp of knowledge, an artist’s palette with brushes and others symbols.
Known for his concern for the health of children, the architect’s innovative plans that brought more air and light into classrooms is evident in the treatment of the fenestration. The second floor of the central bay has large tripartite window openings flanked by single windows with flared terra cotta lintels and projecting keystones. The fourth floor is distinguished by large tripartite arched window openings with pilasters. The fifth floor is ornamented by large terra cotta plaques with detailed foliate motifs between the window bays. The Eldridge and Forsyth Street facades exhibit similar architectural treatments and very large window openings with molded surrounds.
Since 2008, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the Lower East Side on its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, rampant development continues to obliterate the special character of the neighborhood. With the imminent closing of Rivington House, the threat has now become quite real of losing another piece of its architectural and cultural history.