A School by Edward Durell Stone
Published in Oculus (Journal of the New York AIA chapter)
While fighting over his Columbus Circle building, preservationists overlooked another Stone structure just a few blocks away
Edward Durell Stone began his career as an “orthodox” modernist (his Museum of Modern Art, with Philip Goodwin, and his Conger Goodyear House, both from the 1930s, are emblematic of his International Style roots). But Stone’s greatest success came in mid-century with a series of classically-inspired buildings – from his American Embassy in New Delhi (1954) to his Kennedy Center (completed in 1971). Neither of his best-known Manhattan works, the General Motors Building, with its awkward plaza, and his Huntington Hartford Museum, with its unusual “lollipop” details, is as successful as those strongly horizontal, Parthenon-like buildings.
In fact, the clearest expression in New York of Stone's aesthetic may be a public school building on West 70th Street, a short hop from Lincoln Center (a complex profoundly influenced by Stone).
P.S. 199, completed in 1963, provided Stone with the kind of site and program his approach required: The site was large enough to permit a freestanding building, and the program dictated that he not build higher than three stories. Stone responded with a 30-foot-high rectangular structure supported by identical white brick piers. The piers, 31 on the east and west sides of the building, 52 on the north and south – support a thin, flat roof that overhangs the building by an extravagant six feet. Groups of concentric squares inscribed beneath the overhang suggest classical patterning, atypical of modernist buildings of the 1960s. There are none of the grilles for which Stone was famous, but the long rows of closely spaced piers serve as a grille writ large. In fact, the 18-inch-deep piers make the building envelope (mostly glass, with black brick spandrels) invisible from acute angles. The main entrance, off-center on the north side of the building, is framed by five piers that are indistinguishable from all the others. (Indeed, from a distance, the only evidence of the entrance is a gap in the white-brick retaining wall around the site.)
Classrooms are arrayed along the exterior walls, with the windowless interior of the first two floors reserved for public spaces. A foyer bisects the ground floor. Despite the foyer’s low ceiling, Stone tried to give it grandeur with marble wall panels, a white terrazzo floor, and two rows of round ceiling fixtures that, in plan, would have resembled colonnades. The auditorium, a double-height space off the foyer, boasts a draped ceiling of metal disks. Still in perfect condition, this hanging screen is Stone at his glamorous best.
The rest of the building is less special. Thanks to the deep piers outside their window, the classrooms are a bit claustrophobic. But above a dreary ground floor cafeteria is a double-height gymnasium. With the piers tall enough to read as piers (and not mere mullions, as in the classrooms), the gym feels monumental. The center of the top floor (actually the auditorium roof) houses an open-air playground. That means the top floor, a rectangular donut, is flooded with light from four inner and four outer facades.
Like any school built 40 years ago, the building has been modified to meet changing conditions. (Among other practical problems: the advent of personal computers required hundreds of additional electric outlets.) Most of the interventions have been handled with discretion. But a few seem overly obtrusive; surely Stone didn’t expect doors set into the white marble foyer walls to be painted baby blue, or a wooden picture molding to be hung across the marble. (The molding makes it possible to show student artwork without drilling through marble.) Then again, this is a school, and student work is its raison d’être. Fortunately, Stone’s architectural ideas are so strong that a few collages don’t obscure them.