Erasmus on Rise Again
New York, February 1, 2011
As the abandoned, 225-year-old Erasmus Hall Academy in Flatbush slips into decay, some have been dismayed by the Department of Education's apparent lack of interest in saving the building and by private donors' broken promises to do so. But it now looks as if Erasmus will finally get its angel.
A new, $300,000 matching grant from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation is likely to jump-start restoration of the building, which once housed the oldest chartered high school in New York and counts Founding Fathers John Jay and Alexander Hamilton among its early benefactors.
While the DOE had no apparent plans for the academy building, it gave the New York Landmarks Conservancy its blessing to pursue a rescue plan. When previous attempts by the alumni association to raise awareness or funds were unsuccessful, the conservancy sought grants on behalf of the city and commissioned a survey of conditions in the building. The report, completed in December, raised new hope for Erasmus.
"Now, for the first time we have a report that says here's what has to be done, and it's not a building that's going to fall down unless people allow it to," said Peg Breen, president of the landmarks conservancy. "It's to [DOE's] credit that they're willing to work with us and turn us loose."
Built in 1786 on land donated by the Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church, the Federal-style wooden structure has good bones and an undisputed pedigree. In 1966, it became one of the earliest city-designated landmarks; it received National Register for Historic Places designation in 1975.
Inside Brooklyn's Very Old School
The 225-year-old Erasmus Hall Academy in Brooklyn once housed the oldest chartered high school in New York and counts two founding fathers among its early benefactors.
But the academy, enclosed in the quadrangle formed by the newer Erasmus Hall High School, a Gothic structure that's also a city landmark, has been vacant for more than 10 years. Cracked paint, crumbled porches and broken shingles now define its exterior.
Inside, a few artifacts—mannequins in period costume, Colonial furniture and school memorabilia—hint at its failed stint as a museum. It's now used as storage for school records and discarded band instruments.
Ron Schweiger, Brooklyn's borough historian, visited the site three years ago. "I don't know what's going to happen to the thing—it's a piece of local and national history," he said. "It's a shame because it's part of the education history of New York and Brooklyn."
No schooling has taken place in the academy building since the mid-1930s; students attend the adjacent high school, which boasts a long list of noted alumni such as Barbra Streisand, Eli Wallach, Mickey Spillane and Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis.
Despite the exterior deterioration, a sagging attic and considerable water damage, the consulting engineers who surveyed the building gave the former school a good report card.
"It's remarkable that we still have this building intact and in a condition that's not so bad that we have to throw our hands up," said Daniel J. Allen, partner at Cutsogeorge Tooman & Allen Architects, the firm that prepared the conditions report.
Still, exterior restoration is estimated to cost $2.2 million. Paint abatement for toxins such as lead, a new roof, dormers and windows are the highest ticket items. Structural work is estimated at another $500,000.
Before restoration can begin, the conservancy must first match the state grant. Then it can prioritize work to stabilize the building. Full-on restoration likely won't begin for a couple of years. In the meantime, the conservancy has recommended no-cost measures such as gutter maintenance to allay further water damage.
"Bringing in the funding is on the horizon. We first had to understand what we were dealing with," said Karen Ansis, the conservancy's funding manager and an Erasmus alumna. She met with alumni Jan. 22 to apprise them of costs and funding strategies.
Finding a use for the quirky building is another challenge. Its location within a secured school setting presents access and related issues for others using the building. People close to the project envision a cultural or community center or administrative offices for educators.
"It's an issue for the DOE to figure out how to use the building; we don't regulate the use," said John Weiss, deputy counsel at the city landmarks commission, adding, "[But] the future certainly looks bright for a building that is very historically significant on a national level."
A DOE spokeswoman said it was too early at this stage to comment. The department will remain owner of the building, and the School Construction Authority—DOE's building and design division—will likely oversee restoration. What remains uncertain is whether a user will be found for the building.
That doesn't deter Ms. Breen. "I think in the midst of all this—who's on first and how we're going to do this—we have this incredible building with ties to our Founding Fathers: How can you not go all out to save it?"
Published in The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 1, 2011