Many years ago Donald Fagen of Steely Dan indicated that he wouldn’t be going back to his old school (Bard College in upstate NY). I rarely go back to any of mine, either — I was despised at my grade school by the faculty and student body alike, and I hated them right back; I have entered my old college building once since I graduated (I just don’t feel a connection); and the Center For The Media Arts, a trade school I attended in the 1990s that I credit for hooking me on the whole computer thing in the first place, eventually resulting in Forgotten New York — shut its doors in 1993, when I was still an employee there.
Cathedral Prep, 555 Washington Avenue on the border of Clinton Hill and Bedford-Stuyvesant, is another matter; I have always looked back on it with fondness. I graduated in 1975 in the middle of a class of 35.
It’s a magnificent Flemish Gothic pile at Washington and Atlantic Avenues, festooned with concrete crosses, gargoyles and two magnificent spires. An intimidating iron gate protects what looks for all the world like a moat. The former Cathedral Preparatory Seminary was built by the Brooklyn Diocese in 1914-1915 and was originally a six-year seminary where young men would be trained for the priesthood. Cathedral was my high school. When I was in 8th grade, I knew even then that I did not have a vocation for the priesthood, but when Cathedral offered me a four-year scholarship, the choice was clear for my family and me. The commute was arduous (though at ages 14 through 17 I took these things in stride; I took the B63 bus down 5th Avenue in Bay Ridge to Atlantic Avenue, where I would wait for the B45. In the 1970s, the Underberg Building was still there, the vast PC Richard was a row of brownstones, and the Atlantic Mall was a slaughterhouse).
The faculty was a mix of priests and lay faculty, some saintly in mien and some violently profane; I once saw my (lay) math teacher (who got along with me for the most part) deliver a vicious beating to a guy who had mouthed off to him in the hall. I saw none of the buggery that springs to too many minds too quickly when they hear of an all-boys’ school staffed by priests. This week (January 2009) erstwhile Women’s Wear Daily publisher, author, and Parade Magazine columnist James Brady passed away. His brother, Father Tom Brady, taught me history at Cathedral and other staff such as Father William Flood and Father Frank Manzo were also positive influences.
At one time, the Brooklyn Diocese was described as “overflowing with aspiring priests,” (I am told my mother’s fondest wish was that I would become one) but some six decades after the school opened, it would be a completely different story; my graduating class in 1975 numbered 35, and Cathedral’s last class, in 1985, comprised only 16 students as vocations dropped off sharply over the school’s final two decades. The school closed in June of that year.
Entrance on the Washington Avenue side. A statue of the Virgin Mary used to be in this alcove.
The school’s distinctive gargoyles. The school yearbook was the Gargoyle and the newspaper was the Spire.
Happily, in the years after the school closed, the building was spared the wrecker’s ball and was converted to residential units. Sadly, the priests’ rectory stood abandoned for nearly 20 years after its closure. I’m told you can still see the foul lines where the basketball court used to be.
In August 2004 I made the acquaintance of Linda P., owner of one of the residential units of what are now Cathedral Condominiums. How cool would it have been to live in my old high school, and had Cathedral been closer to where I was working at the time (midtown), I might have made a bid for an apartment. At the time, though, with prices of $400K per 1 bedroom, it was outside my price range. The developers did an excellent job with the place — here’s a look at one of the interiors on Corcoran.
Linda was able to give me access to the common area, which pretty much the inner courtyard, where I had once hit an inside the park grand slam home run in wiffle ball. I hit a shot to the top of the shed in “centerfield” meaning that the “center fielder” had to climb a ladder to the shed, retrieve the ball, and fire it back in. I beat the throw.
One of the in-spiring Spires.
Inner courtyard. In the olden days, the staircase wasn’t there, the windows were part of the school cafeteria, and the floor was concrete, not grass.
Above: Father Frank Manzo, in a vintage 1975 leisure suit, and below, (now Father) John Brown, who is a priest himself now. As you can see, the distinctive arched windows are still there. The high brick wall made a great handball court. In the 1970s, Cathedral had a great handball team. But St. Francis Prep was better. They were undefeated from 1971-1975.
The exterior balconies, which weren’t there when I was a student, are a nice touch, as are the plantings and grass in the common.
Cathedral is the only one of my old schools that I really miss and, while I wish it were still a school, it seems to have found a second wind in its afterlife as a pleasant living space in a neighborhood that has been improving rapidly in recent years, though we’ll have to see if the great recession of the late 00s will have an impact on that.
Linda later sent along some pages from a Cathedral Prep yearbook from the late 1920s or early 1930s. The school’s interiors looked remarkably similar when I attended classes in the 1970s.
In the 1970s, athletic instructor John Crane was the senior member of the faculty, with over 45 years of service. These yearbook photos feature him and the teams he coached.
Photographs from August 2004; page completed January 29, 2009