FLATBUSH – The original Erasmus Hall Academy building in the school’s courtyard at 911 Flatbush Avenue is not only one of the borough’s oldest buildings, but also one of its most historically significant.
The 1786 structure, which for many years was home to Erasmus Hall Academy, predates the signing of the Constitution and is the second oldest public school in the United States. Started as a private institution, the school was the first secondary school chartered by the New York State Regents and admitted girls as early as 1801. It was turned over to the public school system in 1896, two years after the Town of Flatbush joined the City of Brooklyn, and two years before Brooklyn consolidated into the City of New York, and became Erasmus Hall High School.
A document still in the school’s possession lists some of the founding fathers who subscribed to help build the school – Chief Justice John Jay, and legislators Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, all scribes of the Federalist Papers. Burr famously killed Hamilton in a duel.
In 1905 the City of New York started construction on a modern school building complex, designed by Charles B. J. Snyder in then-popular Collegiate Gothic style, to be built around the original structure by the City of New York. Designed to be completed in four phases, as the need for more school space arose, last one, connecting Bedford Avenue to Flatbush, was finished in 1940.
To construct the last school building, “the original frame school house had to be moved and its several wings demolished. Work on the old structure was begun by the Works Progress Administration, but was halted due to the outbreak of World War II. After the war, the relocation and restoration of the old building was completed and it was used for administrative offices,” Landmarks Report in 2003 remarked.
The 1787 structure, designated an individual landmark on March 15, 1966, though, suffered neglect in the later decades of the 20th Century and was even in danger of being condemned. The leaky roof caused significant interior water damage. In 2017, The New York Times referred to the structure as a “rotting school” and highlighted the fact that the first school faced the danger of “demolition by neglect.”
Thanks to public outcry, funds were raised to fund necessary repairs, the largest share by contributed by the Borough President Eric Adams, whose office allocated $700,000 for repairs to the wood frame landmark.
The New York Landmark Conservancy reports that the restoration of the old school building will proceed in two phases: “The first phase includes the replacement of the roofing, and repair of the dormer windows and chimneys.
“This work will halt water leaks and put an end to the interior damage they have caused. The second phase, which will begin immediately after the first phase, will include the repair and repainting of the clapboard facades, repair and repainting of the front and rear porches and repair and repainting of the wood windows. ”
Erasmus was once one the nation’s elite schools before its academics plummeted and it was divided into five separate schools in 1994. Its graduates include celebrities like actors Eli Wallach and Ralph Most, singers like Neil Diamond and Barbara Streisand, and even Nobel Prize laureates Barbara McClintock (Class of 1919) and Eric Kandel (1944). The success in achieving funding is due in large part to the tireless advocacy of the Erasmus Hall Alumni Association and concerned citizens in Flatbush.
I presently teach on the campus and in 1997, before the deterioration of the building, the school contained a museum with mannequins and period piece furniture, allowing my visiting students to imagine student life in the late 1780s. Hopefully, students will soon be able to visit the historic structure again.
There is an amusing anecdote about the old school. Retired Principal of the High School for Service and Learning on the Erasmus Hall campus Peter Fabianski was previously in charge of the old building. One day three years ago a custodian came to him with an exciting discovery – he had come upon dozens of 1890s vintage firearms that had once been used by the school’s rifle team locked up in old cabinets. NYPD was called, and the ancient rifles were safely removed.
Losing this living link to eighteenth-century Brooklyn would be a tragedy not just for Erasmus Hall, but also for the entire borough and most importantly for future Brooklynites. Kudos to Eric Adams and to all who are helping save this piece of Brooklyn history.