In 1975, I hit an inside the park grand slam in a wiffleball game in this place. I hit drive to center and the kid who was out there needed to climb a ladder and retrieve a ball that was bouncing on top of a shed. I went 6 for 8 in that game with six runs batted in. That performance was never repeated. When the season ended, I had a .300 batting average. “Great, but everyone else hit .700,” said classmate Ray Colon, who always knew how to needle.
Above you see the inner courtyard of the building that was my high school, Cathedral Prep on Atlantic and Washington Avenues in Brooklyn. A decade ago when I was assembling photos for the ForgottenBook, I requested one of the current residents of Cathedral Condominiums, built in the old school. Linda P., to let me in a few of the common areas and get some pictures. My editor had requested I use 35MM black and white film, so that’s what you see above.
The former Cathedral Prep is a magnificent Flemish Gothic pile at Washington and Atlantic Avenues, festooned with concrete spires, crosses, gargoyles and two magnificent spires reminiscent of the ones at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby in Louisville. An intimidating iron gate protects what looks for all the world like a moat. Set in concrete in the cornice above the third floor is a cardinal’s hat.
The Catholic iconography indicates it one had an intimate connection with the Church. 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. Decades later, it became a four-year school, with the institution of Cathedral College in Douglaston, Queens. Latin, the primary language in Catholic services until the Vatican II reformations in the early 1960s, was taught throughout the school’s 70-year history.
Cathedral Prep was my high school. Although I never had any thoughts of a vocation with the Church neither my parents nor I could argue with the four-year scholarship the school bestowed on me because of my decent marks at St. Anselm’s School in Bay Ridge.
Though my years at Cathedral were pleasant and productive ones, for the most part, when I was a teenager I didn’t have nearly the enthusiasm for New York City ephemera, architectually and otherwise, that I do now. I took little note, for example, of Cathedral’s magnificent marble sculptures and floors, and heavy oak doors. The acoustics in the hall were such that you could whisper into one corner and a person in the opposite corner could hear you, much like a phenomenon at an archway outside the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal. Cathedral’s gym was so small that the steps led directly from the main hall down to the court itself; the benches were flush on the wall facing the court, while there were two pillars on the court at the far end. (I forget if it was legal to bounce pass off the columns.) Our senior lounge, on the third floor, was the size of a couple of coat closets.
As David Maraniss reports in his biography When Pride Still Mattered, Vince Lombardi, who led the Green Bay Packers to four titles including two Super Bowl victories in the 1960s, attended Cathedral Prep for nearly four years, between 1928 and 1932. During Lombardi’s time, John “Jocko” Crane was baseball and basketball coach, and by the time I arrived at the school 43 years after Lombardi, Mr. Crane was still there, as a physical education teacher. I didn’t find out Lombardi had attended Cathedral until long after I had graduated, and Mr. Crane never mentioned it. Lombardi, in his fourth year, realized he did not have a priestly vocation and moved on to St. Francis Prep on Butler Street in Cobble Hill. Besides, Cathedral didn’t have a football team and indeed, as Maraniss reports, the school was opposed to football, citing the numerous injuries, “questionable ethical practices,” the “evasion of rules”, “trickery” and “lack of courtesy.”
Despite not having a football team while I was there, Cathedral had a game sports program; our basketball team won more than it lost, and a regular opponent was Power Memorial Academy, which, just before my arrival at Cathedral, boasted a lanky kid named Lew Alcindor who would go on to the NBA, convert to Islam and become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Power would close its doors in 1984. Our handball team was nearly championship caliber: but St. Francis Prep never lost a game to anyone in those years. My contributions were limited to intramural wiffleball and basketball games both indoors in the gym and outside next to the parking lot.
During Lombardi’s time, Maraniss describes the Brooklyn Diocese as “overflowing with aspiring priests,” but some six decades later, 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.
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 (Cathedral’s faculty was an even split between lay teachers and priests) stood abandoned for nearly 20 years after its closure.
Here’s a 2016 story in Curbed about a one-bedroom in Cathedral Condominiums selling for $850K — in an online series about relatively cheap Brooklyn apartments. Clearly, I have made some wrong career choices.