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Erasmus Hall Educational Complex in Flatbush

Nestled in the heart of Brooklyn is one of New York City’s most impressive yet little known treasures ­– Erasmus Hall, a Gothic-style school that is reminiscent of the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge. Founded in 1786 in an area settled by the Dutch, Erasmus Hall is considered one of the oldest schools in the United States and was the first secondary school chartered by the New York State Regents. It was funded by some of the country’s most famous Founding Fathers including Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr and features notable alumni like Mae West, Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond. Today, five schools use the complex, now known as Erasmus Hall Educational Campus, which is filled with notable art and architecture.

 

Less visible from the outside is the original wooden clapboard school building that dates to 1786, which still exists inside the high school courtyard. The Federal style building was constructed by local Dutch families (the Flatbush area is also home the Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church, built in the decade following the school). The white paint has long been peeling and the green shutters in need of restoration. The columns were no longer supporting the structure amongst other significant damage, and in 2011, the 1786 building received a long-awaited grant for its restoration. Six years later, the building still needs more love but this week Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams pledged $650,000 of the capital budget for exterior restoration.

“It’s a very, very important building for Brooklyn and the rest of the city. There are very few of this ilk around at this point…It’s one of the city’s most important buildings and its condition should reflect its great heritage,” Karen Ansis of the New York Landmark Conservancy told Untapped Cities earlier this year. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reports that restoration will cost around $2 million, with Ansis telling the publication, “[The Borough Hall money is] a good first step; it would have been nice if the council stepped up.”

The newer Gothic campus was designed in 1904 by school superintendent C.B.J. Snyder, credited with over 400 of New York City’s most architecturally notable schools. It is believed that the preservation of the original school building was part of Snyder’s plan for the Erasmus campus. But there have been no classes inside the 1786 building since the 1930s, although the building was used as an administrative building since.

Photograph by E. Frossard courtesy of NYC School Construction Authority 

There’s also much more to see at Erasmus, besides the original school building. Artwork was an important part of school design during Snyder’s time period, with most schools filled with site specific commissioned artworks of various mediums. But Erasmus Hall is special: it is brimming with stained glass. The vaulted two-floor auditorium, designed much like a church, is a sight to behold. Behind the stage is the opulent piece, The Life of Erasmus, showing the life of the school’s namesake. The two-level auditorium is lined on both sides with decorative stained glass windows. All through the school, traditional stained glass motifs contrast with modern imagery, including sections about American industry and scientific research.

Life of Erasmus stained glass inside the auditorium, designed by Church Glass Fabricators (1910-1912). Photograph by Stan Ries courtesy of NYC School Construction Authority 

Life of Erasmus stained glass. Photograph by E. Frossard courtesy of NYC School Construction Authority 

Above the main entrance along Flatbush Avenue, you’ll see five panels of stained glass on the second floor behind the turreted façade – a work that created by Louis Comfort Tiffany, the son of the famous jeweler. This stained glass gem was originally commissioned in 1919 for the school library to honor the first principal of Erasmus Hall, Walter B. Gunnison. The neoclassical subject matter shows a figure, representing knowledge, amidst a Roman scene achieved through a combination of painted and plated glass techniques. Due to overcrowding, the library has since been converted into two classrooms but the Tiffany piece remains in situ.

Walter B. Gunnison Memorial Window by Louis Tiffany (1919). Stained glass. Photograph by E. Frossard courtesy of NYC School Construction Authority.

 Photograph by E. Frossard courtesy of NYC School Construction Authority 

Other areas, including a library and exits are also treated with stained glass:

 Photograph by E. Frossard courtesy of NYC School Construction Authority 

 Photograph by E. Frossard courtesy of NYC School Construction Authority 

To walk through the halls of Erasmus Hall is to reveal the history of education in New York City and the greater history of the United States. There may be no better location for such a dazzling display of stained glass to be present, a gift to the thousands of students that traverse the hallowed ground every day.

Next, discover the Top 10 Secrets of the Brooklyn Kings Theatre also in Flatbush just a few blocks away. This location is featured in our new book Secret Brooklyn: An Unusual Guide from Jonglez publishing.

 Brooklyn, Erasmus High School, Flatbush, preservation

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