Art Deco Innovations in Schools

By Alma Kadragic

Today we call it Art Deco, but in 1929 when The New York Times published the architectural design for the Herman Ridder Junior High School in the Bronx, that term had not yet been coined. The story about Ridder and several other new schools built in New York City carried the headline “Modernism in Architecture Has Reached the Schools.” Both that article and subsequent coverage after Ridder opened in 1931 emphasized the radical change the building's architecture and design represented.

 

Although the architecture of the new building for the New School for Social Research was markedly different from that of the Herman Ridder School, it too represented a departure from tradition, in this case for an institution of higher education. The school’s new facility opened to the public on New Year’s Day 1931 and students began attending classes a few days later.

                       

The two buildings exemplify the boom in the construction of notable new schools that began in New York City in the mid-1920s. Although starting to taper off toward the end of the decade, it persisted even during the depths of the Great Depression, suggesting a glimmer of hope amid bankruptcies and unemployment.

Herman Ridder Junior High School, corner entrance tower. Photo: Meghan Weatherby

Herman Ridder Junior High School, terra-cotta sign. Photo: Meghan Weatherby

Herman Ridder Junior High School

The  Herman  Ridder  School  was  part  of the wave of  school  construction continued   by   Walter    C.    Martin    who    became Superintendent of School Buildings in New York City in 1928.  The William Seward Park High School in Manhattan (1928–29) and the Brooklyn Industrial High School for Girls (1929-30) already featured some  Art  Deco ornamentation on traditional  low  brick-clad   buildings.  Ridder,  however,  was more  daring  and  demonstrated  a  stronger commitment to the modernistic style, now called Art Deco.

Today we call it Art Deco, but in 1929 when The New York Times published the design for the Herman Ridder Junior High School in the Bronx, that term had not yet been coined. The story about Ridder and several other new schools in New York City carried the headline “Modernism in Architecture Has Reached the Schools.” Both that article and subsequent coverage after Ridder opened in 1931 emphasized the radical change the building represented.

 

Although the architecture of the new building for the New School for Social Research was markedly different from that of the Herman Ridder School, it too represented a departure from tradition, in this case for an institution of higher education. The school’s new facility opened to the public on New Year’s Day 1931 and students began attending classes a few days later.

                       

The two buildings exemplify the boom in the construction of notable new schools that began in New York City in the mid-1920s. Although starting to taper off toward the end of the decade, it persisted even during the depths of the Great Depression, suggesting a glimmer of hope amid bankruptcies and unemployment.

Herman Ridder Junior High School, tower figures holding open books.  Photo: Meghan Weatherby

New School for Social Research

Similarly, progressive ideals in higher and adult education were the principles underlying the New School for Social Research, established in 1919. Its founders were some of the leading intellectuals in the country, including Charles Beard, John Dewey, and Thorsten Veblen. It represented a new model for higher education, an alternative to the mainstream. It welcomed diversity and encouraged critical thought.


When  the converted  townhouses  the  school  occupied  on  West  23rd Street  were slated for demolition, the New School commissioned Austrian-born architect Joseph Urban to design a new facility on West 12th Street off lower Fifth Avenue. The building would contain classrooms, performance spaces, and meeting facilities for linking experts, students, and the community.

The exterior of the seven-story structure is an early example in Manhattan of the International Style. Its façade features alternating rows of cream and black bricks and horizontal bands of continuous windows to maximize the entry of natural light. The Art Deco influence is most evident in the school’s interior, specifically in the auditorium and its lobby. In 1997, LPC granted landmark status to these spaces – but not the entire building.

 

A shallow lobby with curvilinear surfaces, a coved ceiling, and a black and white terrazzo floor precedes the auditorium. Horizontal bands of oxidized bronze cover the lower portion of the wall. Although the color scheme is primarily black and white, the east and west walls are painted a deep russet.

 

Curvilinear forms continue in the oval or egg-shaped auditorium, said to be among the first of its kind in the world. The absence of pillars ensures unobstructed views and the U-shaped stage engages the audience from different angles. Concentric oval rings of perforated plaster radiate from the ceiling to meet the proscenium arch and cover the upper walls. The unusual design contributed to the acoustical quality of the space and served as a precedent for the design of Radio City Music Hall. Accents of bright red provide some contrast to the predominantly gray color scheme.

 

The auditorium was named the John L. Tishman Auditorium after a 1992 restoration by Prentice & Chan Ohlhausen. It continues to be used for film screenings, discussions, lectures, and seminars.

 

The LPC had also considered landmark designation of the areas of the school’s seventh floor where frescoes by Mexican artist José Clemente Orozco are located. Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today series once covered the walls of the third-floor Board of Directors room but is now in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

New School for Social Research, John L. Tishman Auditorium. Photo: Richard Berenholtz

New School for Social Research, frescoes by Jose Clemente Orozco. Photo: Richard Berenholtz

About the Author:

Alma Kadragic writes about art and architecture, real estate, international media, press freedom, women in business, public relations and more. She is an entrepreneur who holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the City University of New York; served as producer and bureau chief for ABC News in the U.S. and overseas; and advises businesses on marketing, branding, sponsorship, communication, and business development.

Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 1, Issue 2, Winter 2016. View a digital version of the full journal here.

© 2020 Copyright Art Deco Society of New York, Inc. 

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