School may be out for the summer, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take time to appreciate the art and architecture of PS 34 Franklin D. Roosevelt at 730 East 12th Street in the East Village. With the popularity of the show Mad Men, (check out our blog about Village spots featured on the show) Mid-Century Modern buildings are getting some attention and recognition by preservation advocates. Yet our schools from the same time, of which there are over 80 just in Manhattan, have been largely ignored. Of these schools, PS 34 could arguably be the most intriguing and quintessentially “Mad Men-esque” thanks in large part to its designers’ and their connection to the United Nations building.
To better understand and appreciate the design, we need to look at the context in which this school was built. In 1953, when it was designed, New York City and the East Village schools were overcrowded due to a shifting population; the baby boom was underway, and large numbers of minority students now flooded the school system, moving to the area from Puerto Rico and the south. The East Village and the Lower East Side, already densely populated neighborhoods, were the site of a number of urban renewal projects that rearranged the density and placed additional strain on already overcrowded schools. Plus the school serving the area, PS 64 and PS 61, had been built at the turn of the century by C.B.J. Snyder and were typical H- and E-plan schools that rose five-stories high with a maze of stairs for both students and teachers to traverse. In the mid-1950s PS 61 was pushed to its capacity, housing more students than any other school in the city. On top of all of this, school officials were tasked with integrating schools, many of which had been built to service one neighborhood and thus were not very racially diverse.
Located between the middle-income, segregated housing at Stuyvesant Town and the low-income housing at Jacob Riis Houses, PS 34 was built to be a truly integrated school. It had room to hold just over 900 students, and its flexible classroom spaces could be rearranged to meet a variety of learning environments. This was in stark contrast to the schools built a generation early that often had immovable desks and focused primarily on a teacher-led lecture-learning experience. This flexibility and adaptability would be a trait required of all schools built under the new superintendent of school buildings, Michael Radoslovich. Under Radoslovich, many outside architecture firms were brought in to help alleviate the strain on the department and to help flesh out new ideas about what a school could be in this modern era.
For PS 34 Franklin D. Roosevelt, Radoslovich hired internationally known architects Harrison & Abramovitz. Partner Wallace K. Harrison had just completed the United Nations building where he was Director of Planning and heavily influenced the design. He had also designed Rockefeller Center and together the partnership would design the Empire State Plaza in Albany and several U.S. Embassies as well as the Time-Life building in Midtown, perhaps the quintessential example of “Mad Men architecture” where Sterling Cooper Draper Price’s offices were supposed to be located and much of the show’s action took place. For PS 34, Harrison & Abramovitz now applied the International Style design principles they were becoming known for.
The school, along with its playground, takes up an entire block and is faced in blue-gray glazed brick, with windows arranged in horizontal bands. The L-shaped plan, another major change from the C- and H-shaped plans of the Snyder school era, is used in its fullest to provide maximum classroom and flexible outdoor space for the students. The shorter, western portion on Szold Place is a three-story structure with the walls of the first story cut away and the columns, or pilotis, exposed in the style of Le Corbusier. The purpose of this design feature was to provide a sheltered play area for students on rainy days. The longer portion on 12th Street contains the gymnasium and the auditorium. The zigzag roof of the auditorium is echoed by a similarly shaped interior ceiling.
The building has two important pieces of art, one located near the main entrance to the school and one inside the auditorium. The outdoor sculpture, Fables of La Fontaine, was created by Mary Callery. It is made of everyday metal building materials like I-beams, washers and nuts with colorful highlights, and combines abstracted forms with recognizable imagery derived from popular children’s fables — “The Fox and the Crow,” “Frog and the Bull,” and “Three Thieves and the Donkey” are all represented. Originally, the sculpture was meant to be climbed on by the children.
The other piece of art highlights another linkage to the recently completed UN building. Fresh off that project and happy with the results, Harrison & Abramovitz commissioned the same artist to create a mural for the school’s auditorium. The piece by Bruce Gregory, which is comprised of two coordinating murals on each of the side walls of the auditorium, features abstract shapes that seem to dance towards the stage while the subtle shading gives the artwork a three-dimensional feel. This biomorphic mural, as it is known, is similar to the piece Gregory created with Fernand Léger in the United Nations General Assembly. There again the two harmonious paintings flank the speakers’ platform. Like the artwork at PS 34, the UN murals’ colors and subtle shading give the abstract artwork a sense of movement and today, seen by an international audience, they are the most famous works of art owned by the UN.
PS 34 Franklin D. Roosevelt reflects a major shift in architectural and educational trends that continues even today. While it may be difficult for us to value a building that many still think of as new, imagine that just a generation ago people were willing to abandon this school’s predecessors. We should look in our neighborhoods to see what unprotected and undervalued buildings we have to ensure that they survive for the next generation.