THE old New York School of Printing, on 49th Street through to 50th, west of Ninth Avenue, is a modernistic surprise in the tenement miscellany of Hell’s Kitchen. Opened in 1960, it was designed by Hugh Kelly and B. Sumner Gruzen in two parts, a fluid, guitar-box auditorium set off by a stern, rectangular sweep of glass blocks and steel swing-out windows. Concealed under a plastic screen years ago, the glass blocks were exposed for a while this year, only to be covered up again.
The 1950s was a dry time for architectural design, which made projects like the School of Printing, now the High School of Graphic Communication Arts, stand out all the more.
Jordan Gruzen, a principal at Gruzen Samton-IBI Group, the successor to his father’s firm, recalls that his father became friendly with Charles Silver, the president of the Board of Education, and convinced him that the tradition of in-house design was more expensive than hiring outside architects.
“He said, ‘O.K., Mr. Gruzen, show me what you’re talking about,’ ” the son says.
That led to George Wingate High School in Flatbush, its rounded form suggesting the nickname “the banjo school,” and the New York School of Printing, designed for 2,700 students.
Completed in 1960, it was in harmony with the ethic of the ’50s: a long, industrial-style wing of glass block set back on 49th, connected to a romantic undulating auditorium wing of cool gray brick shaped like a guitar. Other touches are escalators and a 60-foot-long mosaic mural by Hans Hofmann, brilliantly colored, along the 49th Street wall. The magazine Progressive Architecture considered it “a vibrant note on a depressing street.” In “New York 1960,” by Robert A. M. Stern, David Fishman and Thomas Mellins, the school is described as a “bold, imaginative interpretation of International Style modernism.”
But late in 1958, when the school was halfway up, the New York City controller, Lawrence Gerosa, announced that he had been going over the bills for school construction for the past few years, and had discovered $100 million in “waste and extravagance.” He did not mention the School of Printing by name, but he may have been thinking of it when he denounced water fountains in classrooms, and the new policy of installing artworks like the Hofmann mural, which he termed frills.
“What our city needs are good scholars, not statues and sculpture,” he told The New York Times. He did not mention escalators.
The Board of Education, architects and civic organizations howled in protest. Bancel La Farge, the president of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, protested to The Times, “Do we want our schools to be mistaken for factories, prisons or warehouses?” Mr. Gruzen the elder also opposed Mr. Gerosa’s campaign. The Board of Education responded that the amount spent on art for any school was less than a 10th of a percent of the budget.
In a letter to The Times, Edwin V. Manchester made sport of Mr. Gerosa, writing that what was needed were “frill committees” for each school, and even subfrill committees. In fact, he said, a citywide “Frilcom” would be good — or better yet, a countrywide “Natfrilcom.”
Mr. Gerosa did not take the bait, and continued to attack the Board of Education — especially Mayor Robert F. Wagner, who had put his prestige behind a $500 million bond issue for school construction. Mr. Gerosa lost interest in the matter only in the fall of 1961, specifically on Election Day. He had been running against Mayor Wagner, and lost.
A nighttime rendering of the school, full of shadowy figures in pairs like tango partners, inspired Progressive Architecture to describe it as “like something out of a René Clair movie.”
But in the daytime, the swung-out windows gave it a light, airy character. No contemporary color photographs of the completed building have turned up, but almost all of the ribbed glass blocks survive on the inside, in that cooling Coke-bottle green.
Perhaps 20 or 30 years ago the windows began failing, and they were replaced with standard aluminum models. At the same time, the Board of Education covered over the glass block with Kalwall, translucent plastic panels, with etched-in lines to imitate the mortar joints of the glass block. The crispness of the industrial windows was lost, and the dreamy translucence of the glass block was replaced with a filmy plastic.
Recently the glass block was exposed again, but just in a progressive striptease. Section by section, the School Construction Authority replaced the windows and the Kalwall with current versions, and the rebuilt facade looks pretty similar to the previous one, although hardly like the original. That makes a second replacement facade for the main building, although the peppery gray brick auditorium has survived just fine over half a century.
One thing does remain, however, and that’s the vivacity of the Hofmann mural, undamaged despite its streetside exposure. With glistening glass tiles in red, yellow, blue, green and black in abstract shapes, it is a particularly happy frill, to borrow Mr. Gerosa’s word. Under the current Percent for Art Program, 1 percent of the budget for new construction is spent on artwork, 10 times the amount of 1960.