Historic Richmond Town, Staten Island
Opened in September 1908, Public School 28 was one of many new schools that were built on Staten Island by the New York City Board of Education in the decade following the consolidation of Greater New York in 1898.
Located in the historic community of Richmondtown, which served as the governmental center of Richmond County from 1729 to 1898, it replaced an earlier school that was originally known as Northfield Township District School No. 1. The new school was designed by C.B.J. Snyder, Superintendent of School Buildings, who was responsible for the planning, design, and construction of all new and expanded schools in the five boroughs.
Most of Snyder’s schools were designed for urban and suburban settings. However, Public School 28, a small school in a rural setting, is extraordinary in his body of work, being only one of three of this type designed by Snyder and the only one that survives. The Tudor Revival style building has a prominent gable facing Center Street, featuring timbers and rough plaster, brackets, a bargeboard, and a finial.
Other prominent features include a pair of tall windows set below a terra-cotta label molding and twin covered porches, featuring broad masonry stairs, tapered wood columns and brackets. The school was discontinued in 1965 when a new, larger public school (No. 23) opened nearby, and then served a variety of uses for the Board of Education, including the accommodation of P.S. 23 overflow from 1974 to 1976.
In 1981 the Staten Island Historical Society acquired the school from the Board of Education. It now houses the society’s Education Department, library, archives, and curatorial storage. Public School 28, which remains largely intact, is a rare survivor, recalling Richmondtown’s rural heritage in the post-consolidation period of Staten Island history.
The Development of Richmondtown
Richmond County, encompassing all of Staten Island, was established in 1683 as one of the twelve original counties of New York, with Stony Brook, now Egbertville, its official county seat. Previously, the residents of Staten Island had relied on the Court of Sessions at Gravesend, Brooklyn, for the administration of laws, while the center of political activity on the island was at Oude Dorp, near the present South Beach.
In 1711, the county government built a prison in the tiny village of Coccles Town, which was considered a superior location for conducting governmental business due to its location at the island’s geographical center, near the converging of roads leading to all parts of the island and at the head of the navigable Fresh Kills.
In 1729, Coccles Town was officially chosen to be the new county seat and was renamed Richmond. A new county court house was constructed there that year.
British troops occupied Richmond during the Revolutionary War, establishing quarters in many of the village’s buildings, burning the court house and other buildings upon their departure. Many changes took place after the war as Staten Island grew. Richmond was incorporated as a village within the Town of Southfield in 1823, and was formally laid out with building lots in 1836 by Henry L Seaman, the secretary of the company that operated the plank road that is now Richmond Avenue.
Due to the financial panic of 1837, the village was slow to develop as a residential area, but its importance as the island’s governmental center continued to grow. A new court house was built in 1836-37, and the County Clerk’s and Surrogate’s office and a jail were constructed in 1848 and 1860, respectively. By the mid-nineteenth century, Richmondtown’s position as the political and social focus of the island was secure.
In 1874, nearly forty years after a street pattern was planned and building lots laid out, the village remained sparsely developed, consisting of a handful of governmental buildings, churches, several residential buildings, and two factories, all of which lined the major roads, such as Richmond Road and Fresh Kills Road, and the original village streets, such as Court Place and Center Street. Large estates sprawled beyond the small village center.
After Staten Island became a borough of Greater New York in 1898, governmental activity on the island began to shift to St. George on the north shore and Richmondtown’s importance as the island’s governmental center began to decline. Its residential growth, however, continued. By 1907, a trolley line was running along Richmond Road and a residential community radiated from the core of the town.
The 1907 Atlas of the Borough of Richmond, City of New York identifies a lot at the corner of Center Street and Garretson Avenue (now St. Patrick’s Place) as a "City of New York School Site." Construction of Public School 28 began that year on that site. By 1919, the last of the county offices located in Richmondtown were transferred to St. George, and the old county buildings were abandoned.
In the early 1930s, the Staten Island Historical Society, which had been reorganized in 1920, persuaded the city to fund the rehabilitation of the vacant County Clerk’s Office and the County Court House for use as the society’s library and historical museum. In 1939, the Society turned its attention to the acquisition and restoration of the Voorlezer’s House, built c.1695, the oldest extant elementary school house in the United States.
In the following decades, the Historical Society purchased other historic buildings and land in the area and established Richmondtown Restoration as a living museum of Staten Island and metropolitan history. The Richmondtown Restoration became a joint endeavor between the Staten Island Historical Society and the City of New York in the 1950s.
Subsequently, other historic properties in the area, including former Public School 28, were acquired and restored. Additionally, a number of threatened historic buildings from other parts of the island were moved to the Restoration’s property and also restored. The greater Richmondtown area continued to develop as a residential community, much of it concentrated in the decades following World War II, the opening of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, and in the boom years of the 1980s.
Public Schools on Staten Island
Prior to the consolidation of Greater New York in 1898, the schools on Staten Island were under the jurisdiction of the Richmond County Superintendent of Schools and the State of New York. These public schools were known as "common schools" in the nineteenth century.
In 1854, local school districts, organized and numbered by township, were given the power to select sites for schools and raise the money to construct and maintain schoolhouses, in addition to other supervisory powers. Common school districts received financial support from state sources and school district taxes; some continued to use the rate bill system and assessed parents
according to the number of children they sent to school. Public School 28’s predecessor was originally Northfield Township District School No. 1. Northfield had eight school districts, which were centered on the villages and numbered in order of establishment.
During the last half of the nineteenth century, presumably all of the school districts on Staten Island erected schoolhouses, which varied widely in design and size since each district was responsible for its own facilities. The increase in the population on the island throughout that period, however, taxed the adequacy of even the best-planned and largest facilities.
By the 1870s, the various townships began constructing new schools in response to the problem. Nevertheless, the persistent inadequate and overcrowded conditions of many of the schools on Staten Island prompted the County Superintendent to report that the public was generally taking a greater interest in schools and education, in contrast to the "good enough" attitude that had prevailed.
During the 1890s over twenty district schoolhouses were erected on Staten Island. The growing population and the enforcement of the Compulsory Education Act, adopted in 1894, prompted the school construction boom. Richmond County Superintendent of Schools Julia K. West, who held the position from 1894 to 1898, oversaw most of this construction.
The work on Staten Island occurred at the same time as the extensive construction of schoolhouses throughout New York State during the 1890s. The construction of a school on Staten Island prior to the consolidation of Greater New York in 1898 was directed by the School District Board of Trustees.
Following consolidation, school construction on the island and throughout the city was controlled by the Board of Education of the City of New York. In the decade that followed, several new schools were opened on Staten Island and a number of existing schoolhouses were replaced, such as Public School 28; others were expanded. These buildings and additions were overseen by C.B.J. Snyder, Superintendent of School Buildings for the Board of Education of the City of New York.
Charles B.J. Snyder (1860-1945), Superintendent of School Buildings, was the architect responsible for the planning, design, and construction of all new and expanded schools in the five boroughs after consolidation.
Appointed to this position in 1891, when he oversaw only Manhattan and the annexed district of the Bronx, Snyder remained in that post until 1923. Little is known of his background beyond his birth in Stillwater, N.Y., and his architectural study with William E. Bishop. He was first listed in New York City directories in 1886, and remained in practice until around 1936.
A specialist in school design, Snyder was recognized as a national leader in this regard as early as 1905:
Possibly it was not the best, probably it way not the most economical, certainly it was not the most expeditious way to have all the school-houses the city stood in such sore need of designed and built by the official architect to the Department of Education. But, since that method had to be followed, it is a matter of wonderful good fortune that the official architect chanced to be such a man as is Mr. C.B.J. Snyder, who not only at the outset showed such distinct capacity for his task, but has proved himself a man able to grow as his opportunities opened before him. Mr. Wheelwright in Boston, Mr. Ittner in St. Louis, Mr. Mundie in Chicago, have done excellent service to their respective cities in the way of building school-houses… but they have not had to do their work under the same sort of pressure that has been put upon Mr. Snyder, and they have not had to adapt their architectural treatment to as closely restricted sites.
Snyder’s achievement was particularly remarkable given the scale of new school construction in New York: "The magnitude of the undertaking and the reality of the need for these new school-houses is shown by the fact that, even after several years of active building, there are at this time seventy-seven school-houses in various stages of completeness now in charge of the architect to the Department of Education, while contracts for twenty-four more will shortly be made."
Snyder’s concern with health and safety issues in public schools focused on fire protection, ventilation, lighting, and classroom size. The problem of school design in New York was heightened by relatively constricted sites which were necessitated by the high cost of land acquisition.
As a result, Snyder introduced the efficient "H-pIan" having two side courts, which provided increased light and ventilation, as well as areas for safe recreation.
The use of steel skeleton framing for buildings over four stories high allowed for cheaper and faster construction an increased number of windows. Because of the need to produce so many buildings in such as short span of time, Snyder’s
office built upon the design and planning ideas of earlier schools as it produced new ones.
Embracing a variety of architectural styles, Snyder’s schools were considered inventive, handsome, and appropriate as civic monuments. His earliest designs continued the Romanesque Revival style of George W. Debevoise, his predecessor as Superintendent of School Buildings, but Snyder later moved into other idioms, such as Jacobean, Dutch Renaissance, Colonial, and Beaux Arts, and he was credited with the introduction of the Collegiate Gothic style to New York public school architecture, a style which he successfully used for more than twenty years.
Since most of Snyder’s schools were designed for urban and suburban settings, Public School 28, a small school in a rural setting, was extraordinary in his body of work. For its design, Snyder chose a simplified version of the Tudor Revival style that was popular at the time for suburban residential architecture.
Public School 28
In 1905, the Associate Superintendent of Schools, A.P. Marble, reported to the Board of Education that growth in the populations of Queens and Staten Island would require building several new schools to relieve overcrowding. On December 13 of the same year, the Board appropriated $4000 to purchase a vacant lot at the corner of Center Street and Garretson Avenue (now St. Patrick’s Place) in Richmondtown for the construction of a new Public School 28.
The existing Public School 28, which stood at the intersection of Fresh Kills, Richmond Hill, and Old Mill Roads, had become deteriorated, overcrowded, and "poorly situated to serve the pupils of the district."
The land was purchased from Stephen D. Stephens for $4127.50 on February 1906. In December 1906, the Committee on Buildings reported to the Board regarding Public School 28 that "plans and specifications for improvement thereof are now underway."
On June 26, 1907, construction plans for the new school, consisting of four classrooms, playrooms, and a basement janitor’s office, were approved.16 Two weeks later, the general construction contract was awarded by bid to Lawrence J. Rice. The total cost of the school was $48,410, including land acquisition, general construction, heating, electric, and furnishings. It opened in September 1908.
In planning Public School 28, Snyder retained the basic form that had been used by the designers of several existing, pre-consolidation public schools on rural Staten Island. These buildings consisted of one or one-and-a-half stories, with complex hipped and gabled roofs and a central belfry. However, the earlier schools17 were made of wood, whereas Public School 28 is of brick. Snyder designed two other rural Staten Island schools following a similar plan: Public School 618 (c.1900) in Rossviile and Public School 33 (1905) in Grant City.
Both have been demolished. The Tudor Revival style, which was widely used at the time for suburban houses, was unusual for a New York City school. Snyder may have chosen that style to distinguish the school from the Colonial, Federal, and Greek Revival architecture of the older residences and governmental buildings surrounding it. Nevertheless, the school’s Tudor vocabulary is minimal, limited mainly to the half-timbered gable, roof brackets, bargeboard, finial, porches, and label moldings.
The school’s louvered cupola, however, is more characteristic of schoolhouse architecture.
Public School 28 was given the title the "Richmond School" in 1916, when the Board of Education was assigning vanity names to all of the city’s public schools.19 The school was discontinued in 1965 when a new, larger public school (P.S. 23) opened nearby, and then served a variety of uses for the Board of Education, including the accommodation of P.S. 23 overflow from 1974 to 1976. In 1981 the Staten Island Historical Society acquired the school from the Board of Education.20 It now houses the society’s Education Department, library, archives, and curatorial storage.
Former Public School 28 is a one-story brick building with original front and rear wings, and two, later rear additions. The school stands on high ground at the corner of Center Street and St. Patrick’s Place, with a terraced lawn and concrete steps with iron railings leading from Center Street. The building has a high basement and a low hipped roof.
A small octagonal cupola with louvers and a conical roof sits at the peak of the roof and eyebrow windows, now sealed, sit on the roof slopes above the side facades. The windows contain multi-pane wood sash covered with mesh grilles.
At the north side a wing extends out from the main rectangular block of the building. The wing has a gable roof with its end facing the street. The gable contains a louvered attic vent, and features timbers and rough plaster in the Tudor style, brackets, a bargeboard, and a finial. The name of the school is carved in the timbers.
On the main floor the wing has a coupled pair of tall windows set below a terra-cotta label molding. The basement has two rectangular windows. Twin covered porches
with tapered wood columns and brackets, extend to either side of the wing. Broad masonry stairs with brick side walls topped with slate coping lead to main entrances, which are located on the sides of the wing.
The west facade of the main block contains tall, grouped windows with terra-cotta labels on the main floor and smaller basement windows. Stairs and areaways lead to basement-level entrances. The facade is topped by a bracketed, wood cornice. A tall brick smoke stack for the furnace stands near the north corner of the west facade. The east facade is similar, but includes a shorter window on the north side and a coal shute at basement level.
At the rear, an original wing extends out from the main rectangular block of the building. It is similarly detailed to the main block and contains a ground level entrance at the rear.
Later alterations include the additional one- and two-story rear wings constructed in the early- and mid-twentieth century, respectively; the replacement of all doors with non-historic doors; the installation of security lighting; and the addition of an aluminum stack at the rear.
– From the 1998 NYCLPC Landmark Designation Report
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