Kickin’ Out Old School: Puffed Up Prepsters Warily Eye Collegiate’s Modern Move

Why, it's 400 years young!

The soon-to-be-former home of Collegiate School.

The soon-to-be-former home of Collegiate School.

Collegiate School is defined on Urban Dictionary as “a haughty, arrogant school.” When the Upper West Side boys’ academy is trailing in a basketball game and rivals start chanting “score board,” the Collegiate heckling squad has been known to chant “college board” in response.

The academy regularly lands toward the top of various publications’ rankings of secondary schools by college matriculation, and it boasts a distinguished alumni list including Cesar Romero, Peter Bogdanovich, Edgar Bronfman Jr. and John F. Kennedy Jr.

Significantly less distinguished has been its campus, a clumsy architectural hodepodge of three buildings around the intersection of Broadway and 78th Street, patched together by time and improvisation. 

Students learn Gay-Lussac’s law in the science department and then head down seven flights of stairs, surrounded by their ’80s predecessors’ crude psychedelic murals. They change buildings and climb three more flights to the stifling English department, where they can experience for themselves the correlation between the temperature of a container and the pressure of its contents.

While the buildings are inadequate by almost all accounts, students past and present are nevertheless dismayed by Collegiate’s plan to move into a gleaming new building after the institution’s eviction from its longtime home. In 2016, the school’s 650 students across 13 grades will decamp for a modern, new campus on an oddly shaped block of Riverside Boulevard between 61st and 62nd Streets.

“It’s kind of a bummer they’re kicking us out,” said the filmmaker Whit Stillman, who attended the school as an elementary school student in the early ’60s and later made a movie, Metropolitan, lamenting the decline of the “urban haute bourgeoisie.”

“I think it was kind of academically great, the strange spaces in the old building,” he said. “My formative experience in third grade was to be in a remedial reading class with one other student and a teacher. We were almost in a closet. It was so cramped! But it focused attention.”

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A rendering of the proposed Collegiate building.

The move was prompted by the school’s loss of its lease on 241 West 77th Street, its home since 1892. The “old building,” as it’s called, is crowded and lacks air conditioning, the steps on its narrow stairs worn down by generations of scampering.

The building is owned and partially occupied by the Collegiate Church, which in 2006 requested back the space it had been leasing to Collegiate, declining the school’s offer to buy the building. The school will also be vacating Platten Hall, built by the school in 1967, and West End Plaza, an apartment building built in 1912 and acquired by Collegiate in 1977.
Alumni have paid homage to the campus in films including House of D by David Duchovny (class of ’77) and The Talent Given Us by Andrew Wagner (’81), as well as the novel Heavy Metal and You by Chris Krovatin (’03). Former students who pride themselves on the school’s longevity can be resistant to change. In 2001, the administration painted the red gates on the school’s west side black. After protests, they were returned to their original color.

“I will always remember the school’s red door and the tumult of running up its narrow stairs to English class,” New York Times national editor Sam Sifton (’84) wrote in an email. “I still have nightmares where I awaken in one of those classrooms at the start of a test I didn’t know was coming.” On Facebook, another recent alum published a lyrical 800-word essay describing the campus as a “memory palace” (“I remember the slight temperature variation of each different water fountain in the school”) and spawning a thread of 170 comments.

“Facilities were a challenge,” headmaster Lee Levison told The Observer. “I realized before any action the church took that the community was concerned about the lack of space and the quality of space.”
Collegiate’s board of trustees considered redeveloping the school’s two adjoining properties but was stymied by their location in a historic district. The sale of a school-owned apartment building will cover part of the current plan’s costs, said by The New York Times to be around $130 million.

The future Collegiate School, from the outside.

Collegiate’s future, as seen from the outside.

Collegiate was started in 1628—making it the country’s oldest school. Its connection to the church is perhaps the only aspect of the school’s identity that can be traced back to its 17th-century founding, and even the most nostalgic must admit that the school as we know it—I graduated in 2008—bears little resemblance to its original incarnation.

As Jean Parker Waterbury wrote in A History of Collegiate School, “The stages of its growth are distinct: at first the only school in the colony, it became the city school when the British arrived in 1664; in the 1700s it was principally a charity school for children of the poor parishioners, although a small group of paying students was accepted; the next century saw it as wholly a charity grammar school; the present phase, as an outstanding private secondary school, began in 1887.”

“It had already lost pretty much everything,” a 2007 graduate remarked during an impromptu visit to the development site, which seemed notably less vibrant than its current coordinates. Though developers have been trying for years to remake the area into a community called Riverside South, it hasn’t quite gelled.

Collegiate has long been part of the ecosystem of uptown Manhattan; boys bus across on the M79 in the morning, flood Broadway for lunch, take gym in Riverside Park. But the neighborhood has been changing recently, as if anticipating the school’s relocation. New Pizza Town across Broadway, the after-school hangout immortalized in Gossip Girl’s pilot as the “little pizza joint on the corner,” closed last year; its rival Big Nick’s appears to be on its last legs.

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Will a modern open campus diminish the school’s scrappy urban elitism?

Headmaster Mr. Levison takes note of “a pride that most students feel about the school and its commitment to academic excellence and intensity,” but points out that Collegiate differs from similar schools “in that its facilities are modest. It’s not a community that has historically craved ostentatious facilities.”

The new building, while sleeker and larger than the current campus, is basically a humble cube. It will feature three open “hubs” stacked on top of each other: students will ascend from one to the next as they graduate from lower to middle to upper school. The drastic increase in space will not correspond to an increase in enrollment, Mr. Levison told The Observer.

Architect and alumnus Thomas Gluck has promised unobstructed 180-degree views of the Hudson River; the new lobby, like the current one, looks out upon a courtyard, but this one will be expressly built for the purpose of athletic play. (The small outdoor space between Collegiate’s three current buildings has long been used for handball, soccer and basketball games.) The school will carry totems of its history with it in its move: the plaques in the lobby listing the “head boy” of each graduating class since 1912, the grandfather clock in the library admonishing students to “improve the flying moments,” the red door at the school’s entrance.

Mr. Levison assured The Observer that the church will continue to host school events and that the school’s religion classes will continue under the current chaplain. (These classes are comparative rather than catechist; a good percentage of the student body is Jewish.)

Alumni, parents and even some with no immediate stake in a new campus crowded Alice Tully Hall when the school unveiled its plans. Seated onstage at Lincoln Center was the school’s former college guidance counselor, Bruce Breimer. He was soon joined by the headmaster, the head of the board of trustees, a team of architects, and Anna Quindlen, mother of Mr. Krovatin.

“This school that we all love so much was founded at a time when the ground on which it now stands was thick forest and the only part of New Amsterdam that was inhabited was the southernmost tip,” she reminded the audience. “But of course, our true feelings about Collegiate have nothing to do with location.”

Some are warming up to Collegiate’s evolution. “I was bummed and then I saw the pictures,” one current senior said of the proposed new space, following Mr. Gluck’s presentation. “Futuristic. Glass. Cool.”

There is talk of organizing a shuttle service to the new location, which will be at least a 10-minute walk from the Columbus Circle subway station. “If Collegiate was on 61st, I wouldn’t have gone there,” a former classmate, raised on the Upper East Side, told me.

But another alumnus noted that some might see the new neighborhood’s relative isolation as a plus. “Kids are gonna smoke weed for days,” he said.

editorial@observer.com