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Erasmus Hall, Brooklyn, NY: Where Gumbo Was (#81)


As my fellow New Yorker Jonathan L recognized right away, Gumbo was at Erasmus Hall High School, the oldest public school in New York, and certainly one of the most beautiful.




The exterior seen in the puzzle picture, in "Collegiate Gothic" style reminiscent of English universities hides  the school's original building, commonly referred to as "the Academy," Passing through the arch, you're in a large open courtyard, facing the old building. Here's what it looked like in 1879, almost a hundred years old already.



The school was started by the then Dutch-speaking town of Flatbush on land donated by the Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church, which still stands across the street.


The Academy opened in 1787, much smaller than now, and grew and grew as the town's population increased. By the 1890s, Flatbush had been absorbed into Brooklyn (and later into New York City), and the cost of maintaining the school became too much for its board; it became part of the Brooklyn Public Schools in 1895. Early in the new century, the city realized there was a limit to extending the old building, and began planning a new one around it.



The puzzle picture shows the west facade, the first part built. Opened in 1906, it also included the library and auditorium on the south side. After all these years, the auditorium is still called "the Chapel," and its glorious stained glass, including some panels by Louis Comfort Tiffany, encourage the idea.


The building's design was by C.B.J. Snyder, Superintendent of School Buildings; his imprint can be seen all over NY. In this case, he designed the school as several sections that could be erected as funds became available and immigration made necessary. The other sections, completing the quadrangle, were added in 1909, 1925 and 1939.



The Academy was shorn of some of its extensions to make room for the last part; In fact, the remaining portion of the old building was moved several feet to make room. In 1987, archeology students from Brooklyn College excavated the areas uncovered by the move and found thousands of remnants of early Brooklyn life. The photo above is labeled 1953, but must actually be around 1939. The last wing, left, has been completed, but the Academy has not yet been shifted to the right.


The ornate lobby, above, contains tributes to some of the famed grads. Through most of the 20th century, Erasmus Hall was one of the city's largest, 


and most  prestigious public high schools. It also produced a roster of famous graduates, including actress Constance Talmadge, singer/actor Barbra Streisand, football's Al Davis and Sid Luckman, and many more. 

One non-graduate (he transferred to another school) is Neil Diamond, who gave a free concert at Erasmus this year, and spoke movingly of how teachers at Erasmus had put him on the road to his success. He and Streisand sang in the same choir! 


But, starting in the late 1970s and 1980s, the school was allowed to decline; by 1994, the city had begun replacing it with several smaller schools sharing the building and a common heritage. I work in one of them, the Academy of Hospitality and Tourism. Seems apprropriate!


Sadly, the Academy building has also had a hard time, despite being landmarked and on the National Register of Historic Places. After 1940, it housed the school's administrative offices and a small education museum, but today it is surrounded by a fence and awaits its future. The school system has no money for it because it can't be used for classes. While many plans have been proposed, none is currently active.



The Chapel, around 1910




Stained-glass panels behind the stage are a pictorial tribute to Desiderius Erasmus and his life's work.




Even the little things counted: These lanterns hang at the Flatbush Avenue doorways.


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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Didn't realize that PS 165 was also by Snyder. I attended 1st grade there in 1950-51 and spent a lot of time outside the Principal's office. I angered my teacher by reading (which had not been taught yet) when I was supposed to be cutting paper.

Incidentally, Erasmus and Morris were part of a package deal. Each of the boroughs of the newly-merged New York City got one brand-new and large high school. Curtis in Staten Island,  Flushing in Queens and DeWitt Clinton in Manhattan were the others, all designed by Snyder. What made Erasmus unique was the need to not only preserve the Academy, but to continue using it during the next-door construction.

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

Among the many other schools designed by CBJ Snyder was P.S. 165 on the Upper

West Side of Manhattan - which was where I attended from kindergarten to 6th grade. Also Morris HS in the Bronx.

Here are links to pictures (since they are not mine):


PS 165

Morris HS



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