By SERGEY KADINSKY
Forgotten NY correspondent
In the section of Manhattan dubbed Two Bridges on some maps but known to local residents as part of the Lower East Side is a 22-acre superblock of public houses that replaced an old set of tenements and streets. Often when the city engaged in “slum clearance” to build such “towers in the park,” it retained structures within the footprint that it found useful. In the case of Alfred E. Smith Houses, hundreds of buildings were wiped from the map except for one:
Public School 114, a blend of Flemish Renaissance roofline with Collegiate Gothic windows approved by the master of City Beautiful public schools, CBJ Snyder. It presently hosts the Catherine Street Family Respite Shelter.
Dating back to 1907, the former school appears worthy of landmark status but if it had this designation, would it be worthy of Forgotten-NY? These days the facility serves as a homeless family shelter surrounded by the dozen low-income high-rise towers named after the neighborhood boy who became governor and the first Roman Catholic to run for president.
With NYC Lamppost King Robert Mulero in mind, a closeup of the archival photo from 1907 shows us the standard street furniture of that time: a gaslight and square street name plate wrapped around the lamppost. Kevin told the story of the city’s last gaslights in 1998. No square street signs remain anywhere in the city. Am I wrong? Comment below if you find one.
I would like to direct Robert to the recently installed lampposts populating this NYCHA campus. They have the appearance of a headless figure holding up a domed hat. Underneath the cap are energy-saving LED lights that point down to reduce light pollution.
Prior to urban renewal this section of the Lower East Side contained ancient streets that now reside in the memory of roads long gone: Vandewater, Hague, Batavia, Chestnut, and New Chambers Street. The story of this former school takes us back to 1860 when the city opened Primary School No. 14 on Oliver Street to serve the city’s Fourth Ward. As the nearby Five Points slum was built atop the landfill that covered Collect Pond, this ward was also a slum built atop marshland that used to be Old Kill. This forgotten waterway followed James Street towards the East River. On the prewar Hagstrom map above, the red lines indicate the Alfred E. Smith superblock with P.S. 114 inside it.
The design of this school is similar to that of Grammar School No. 55, which opened five years later on the site of Chelsea Green Park. At the turn of the 20th century the school was no longer able to handle the crowds. Superintendent Snyder commissioned a new school here, bound on three sides by Oliver, Oak, and James streets. This new P. S. 114 was addressed as 43 Oak Street. Philosopher Morton White called his alma mater “one of the toughest,” so bad that his parents paid an older schoolmate to protect him- at age 7. Actor Jimmy Durante was bullied for his big nose here. After school, Durante worked as a newsboy at the nearby Newspaper Row.
This section of the Lower East Side had a sizable Italian population. As Little Italy has the San Gennaro feast, and Williamsburg has the Feast of Mount Carmel, the huge Roman Catholic event on Oak and James Streets honored San Rocco, or Saint Roch the 14th century confessor popular in northern Italy. City photographer Percy Loomis Sperr captured this event in 1929. Nearby New Chambers Street hosted the Feast of Saint Vincent, as depicted by the prolific Berenice Abbott in 1935.
The architecture of this school is reminiscent of my alma mater CCNY with a faculty of architectural figures on its walls. As gargoyles represent animals, grotesques are caricatured humans of architecture.
Change came for this neighborhood in 1944, the year when Smith died. The city had ambitious plans to raze hundreds of tenements and replace them with public housing. Block by block the buildings were gone, leaving two survivors: the old Fourth Precinct at 9 Oak Street and P.S. 114. The precinct and the elevated tracks watched over the disappearing neighborhood. Also lost in this slum clearance, the Society of San Giuseppe at 64 Oak Street, and the old Mariner’s Church. And then the precinct was demolished, leaving only the school.
In the following decade, the neighborhood lost its proximity to the subway with the razing of the Third Avenue El below Chatham Square in 1950, and with the rest of its Manhattan section closing in 1955. There is a short subway tunnel built in the 1970s near Chatham Square for the Second Avenue Subway, but it likely won’t see train service for another century.
In the 1951 image from the Municipal Archives, we see P.S. 114 as the lone remnant of a neighborhood that preceded the public housing towers. In this aerial photo we also see P.S. 1 behind the superblock, also a beaux arts design. James Slip is seen running through the superblock but it will soon be erased in favor of a parking lot. Within two years, all of the public housing towers would be completed.
In 1947 the elementary school became the Metropolitan Vocational High School, which trained young musicians and actors including Eartha Kitt. Photographer William P. Gottlieb documented this school in a collection that’s now found at the Library of Congress. The school later relocated to Midtown and then the Upper West Side as LaGuardia High School, from where I graduated.
In 1966 architect Percival Goodman designed the modernist successor to P.S. 114, the Jacob Riis P.S. 126 and the neighboring recreation center. Goodman is best known for designing palatial suburban synagogues with more than 50 in his portfolio as the “most prolific architect in Jewish history.”
In 1970 the rec center received a sweeping 55’ by 26’ mural painted by neighborhood youths. The same way that a rap song openly brings up society’s vices, this artwork depicts policemen taking bribes, drug‐taking and beatings. The imagery here is reminiscent of artist Joan Miro’s biomorphic shapes.
Relying on the NYPL Map Warper, we blend today’s superblock with the 1911 G. W Bromley atlas plate. As much as Robert moses liked Corbusian superblocks, he also liked to accommodate cars should the need arise to restore the old streets here.
At Alfred E. Smith houses, there is enough space between the 12 towers to provide visual corridors of the ghost streets that used to run here. The sections of Oak, James, and Water Streets that ring around the old school was renamed as part of Catherine Slip, while the addresses on it are listed as Catherine Street.
The monument honoring Alfred E. Smith served as a backdrop to a Forgotten-NY tour in April 2019, and Kevin has been here before in January 2019, on Pearl Street behind Police Plaza in 2016, and on James Street in 2014. Catherine Street was named after a member of the colonial Rutgers family that owned land here through 1865. See my earlier essay on what remains of their once-sizable estate.
The old P.S. 114 became a homeless family shelter in 1985, and it went through a rough three decades of suicides, gang activities, and overall neglect that betrayed its beaux arts appearance. I was surprised that the 2009 archeological survey by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the AIA Guide mentioned P.S. 126, but not the older former P.S. 114. The entrance is unmarked, no flags or signs. A couple of DHS vans hint at its current purpose. The interior of this Snyder-period school is truly forgotten, known only to homeless outreach workers, their clients, and security guards.
Sergey Kadinsky is the author of Hidden Waters of New York City: A History and Guide to 101 Forgotten Lakes, Ponds, Creeks, and Streams in the Five Boroughs (2016, Countryman Press) and the webmaster of Hidden Waters Blog.