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New York City’s Public School 199 and Edward Durell Stone

April 22, 2013

Guest Commentary by Hicks Stone

Since the early 1930s as modernism became ascendant in academic institutions around the United States, historical allusion and ornamental embellishment in architecture were viewed as inimical to the embrace of futurism and universality implicit in the modernist message. In the early 1950s Edward Durell Stone, who was one of the earliest practitioners of International Style modernism in the United States, began fusing classical ordering principles, Wrightian forms and ornamental patterning in his architectural designs. Stone did this in an effort to search for an architecture more appropriate to the nation and truer to his origins in rural Arkansas and his Beaux Arts education. As the 1950s unfolded, Stone’s work became progressively more unpopular with the critical and academic establishment. His role as an eccentric outlier in his own profession likely reached its apex with the design of his Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art on New York’s Columbus Circle in 1958.

In a story that is no doubt familiar to the reader, when the time came to preserve Hartford’s museum, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission failed to hold a public hearing to allow an open examination and discussion of the merits of the building in a process that was tarnished by the unsavory appearance of back room deal making. This was at a time when influential architects and architectural historians were supportive of the museum’s preservation. It is with this in mind, that one must consider the New York City Board of Education’s current plan to demolish Edward Stone’s Public School 199 on West 70th Street in New York City and replace it with a mixed-use high-rise development.

The school was designed by Stone in 1960, and is emblematic of Stone’s desire to fuse classical ordering principles with the architectural vocabulary of Frank Lloyd Wright. Stone viewed Wright heroically and saw Wright’s work as the apotheosis of the American architectural tradition. The thin tightly placed piers embellished with a raised square and the prominent roof overhang are explicit references to Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1923 home for Dr. John Storer in Los Angeles. The coffering on the underside of the roof slab is a reprise of a similar patterning in the ceiling of Rome’s Pantheon. The overall symmetry of the façade is a reflection of Stone’s Beaux-Arts training at Harvard and MIT in the late 1920s, an inclination that would be later seen in Stone’s epochal 1954 design for the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India to which P.S. 199 bears a modest resemblance. What makes P.S. 199 notable is that there are few buildings in Stone’s oeuvre that represent this fusion of Wrightian ornament and classical principles in his work so explicitly. In a neighborhood of dreary and faceless residential high rises, the school’s horizontality and architectural detailing make it a welcome respite from mediocrity.

The interior of the school, even after fifty years of use, still bears signature elements of Stone’s midcentury work. Marble veneer is used on the walls and floors of a lobby. Stone’s frequent use of marble is a reflection of his desire to reconnect with our classical past. Metallic swag is draped from the ceiling of one auditorium, an ornamental treatment that Stone first used in his 1948 renovation of New York’s Victoria Theater, a treatment that he would revisit in the basement auditorium of the Hartford museum, one of the few flourishes that the Museum of Art and Design chose to retain when they radically remade Stone’s building.

Stone moved to New York City in 1929 and lived and practiced architecture there until he died in 1978. During that period he designed buildings that have become powerful symbols of the cultural and civic life of the city—the Radio City Music Hall, the Museum of Modern Art and the General Motors Building. It seems strange then that the city that he served so well for so long seems so eager to demolish his work.
— Hicks Stone 

P.S. 199, 270 W 70th Street, Edward Durell Stone, 1960-1963. Photo: Ezra Stoller © ESTO