Saving A Vacant 1787 Landmark – The Erasmus Academy Building
Erasmus Academy Building
Updated: February, 2012
In early 2010, representatives of the Erasmus Hall High School Alumni Association (Alumni Association) gave a tour of the Erasmus Academy Building to Conservancy staff. Dating from 1787, this wood-frame building in the middle of the Erasmus campus had been vacated over ten years before and was deteriorating rapidly. The City’s Department of Education (DOE) which had custody of it maintained that it could not be used for classrooms and therefore could not be the recipient of DOE funding to make necessary repairs. DOE pledged to cooperate with the Conservancy on any restoration and reuse plans, providing DOE funding was not involved.
With The Conservancy commissioned a conditions study with grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s new Elizabeth and Richard Preservation Jeffe Fund for New York City, The 42nd Street Fund of the 42nd Street Development Corporation and the Rockefeller Foundation. Completed by the firm of Cutsogeorge Tooman & Allen Architects in December, 2010, the study estimated the exterior restoration costs at $2.5 million. The Conservancy also applied for and secured a grant of $300,000 from the New York State Environmental Protection Fund to underwrite a portion of this cost.
In February, 2011, the Conservancy met with Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz (BP) and his staff to apprise him of the plight of the Academy Building and to request financial assistance for the exterior restoration project. At that meeting, the BP had an inspiration for an appropriate user for the building: the Caribbean-American Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CACCI), a major nonprofit institution based in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and seeking its own facility. See website at http://www.caribbeantradecenter.com
Upon touring the building with the Conservancy and the Alumni Association shortly thereafter, CACCI enthusiastically embraced the prospect of restoring and occupying the Academy Building. Over 2011, the BP’s office shepherded the review of this project through various City agencies. On January 31, 2012, the BP announced that the project would move forward.
Brief History of the Erasmus Academy Building
The Academy is a wood-frame, clapboard Georgian-Federal style building that is located in the middle of the campus of Erasmus Hall High School in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Its history starts in Colonial New York when, in 1786, the Reverend John H. Livingston and Senator John Vanderbilt founded a private school on land donated by the nearby Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church. Leading citizens of that time, among them Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Peter Lefferts, and Robert Livingston, contributed funds for the construction of the Academy, which opened in 1787. It became the first secondary school in the State to be chartered by the Board of Regents, rendering Erasmus the oldest secondary school in the state and one of the oldest in the country. The Erasmus Academy building was one of the first properties designated as a city landmark by the newly formed Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1966 and then listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
By the end of the 19th century, changes in demographics resulted in an enrollment decline at the private Academy and a new demand for a large public school to accommodate the growing immigrant population. In 1896, the Board of Trustees donated the Academy building and its surrounding land to the Board of Education of the City of Brooklyn, with the proviso that the Board would “erect and maintain upon said lands a High School of the same character and grade as other High School buildings in the City of Brooklyn…” In 1898, the consolidation of New York City brought the various school systems in the boroughs under one city-wide agency.
The buildings that were constructed around the Academy and that now comprise Erasmus Hall High School (EHHS) were completed in four campaigns between 1904 and 1940. The renowned school architect Charles B. J. Snyder was the Superintendent of Buildings for the Board of Education at the start. He designed a true campus for EHHS, with Collegiate Gothic style structures surrounding an open quadrangular green space. EHHS was designated as a city landmark in 2003. It boasts numerous illustrious alumni such as performing artists Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Lainie Kazan, Betty Comden, Beverly Sills, Barbara Stanwyck, Eli Wallach, and Susan Hayward; writers Bernard Malamud and Mickey Spillane; builder Sam Lefrak, former New Jersey governor Jim Florio, sports figures, scientists, and many more, including long-time Conservancy staffer Karen Ansis.
The Academy served as classroom space until the middle of the 20th century, and then as administrative offices, a library, and a museum.
2011 Wall Street Journal Video