1 FEBRUARY 2011
IF I WERE TO ARTICULATE ANY SIBLING RIVALRY towards my younger sister, it would be that she got to attend a true one-room schoolhouse and I did not.
When our parents moved to Craftsbury, Vermont—right about the time the band, Three Dog Night, was popular—the school system consisted of three buildings the divided the grades somewhat democratically. My sister attended the elementary school—a classic one-room schoolhouse with a large multi-paned window fronting the winding road up the hill to “the Common” and a belfry. No kidding. I attended the middle school across the street—an ugly two-room school fashioned out of a former church. Stained glass windows and a mock stage where the altar used to be, but no charm.
But when I graduated to junior high, I attended the academy up the hill and a world away from the little kids’ schools. Founded in 1829, Craftsbury Academy—the oldest continuously operating high school in Vermont—had all the charm my middle school did not. The predominant building on a picture-perfect common, the white, clapboard school was quintessential Norman Rockwell.
Yet, for all my aesthetic yearnings, I’m not nostalgic about that school. I’ve never been to a class reunion. I don’t send checks. I roll my eyes when I tell people I graduated from a class of 13—in a year when high school enrollment was about 55. In short, I left memory of that school in some dusty corner of my adolescent brain along with my disappointing first kiss, the hated algebra book and awkward fashion sense.
Fast forward. Two years ago, while walking the streets in Flatbush, Brooklyn for a story, I came across an odd building that reminded me of my old high school. It was nearly hidden from view, enclosed in a green surrounded by fantastic Gothic architecture that turned out to be Erasmus Hall High School. But looking through the gates, I saw a classically proportioned white, clapboard building. I was too far away to see much detail, but the building’s warped roofline and lopsided porches hinted at some romantic dilapidation.
Then I forgot all about it.
A few months later, at the end of 2008, while researching a preservation story on endangered sites in New York, the building reappeared, or more accurately, re-inserted itself into my head. This time, a few things stuck. The former school—also an academy— dates to 1786 and was first funded by Founding Fathers such as Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and other notables (the grand sum of 915 pounds helped finance the school). Not for nothing, it maintained its A-list standing, graduating Mae West, Eli Wallach and Mickey Spillane, and later, counting Barbra Streisand, Beverly Sills and others among its alumni.
Last year at this time, I was invited to go on a field survey of the building with the New York Landmarks Conservancy. It was a long subway ride from Astoria and it was pouring buckets; my sense of intrigue damped each time I looked out the window. But I also sensed it was a rare opportunity, so I dragged myself out.
If the school looked forlorn from the outside, it appeared haunted on the inside. Small, sad ghosts of its past lives were everywhere: school memorabilia, mannequins in period costume—some dismembered, others sitting wonky on their Colonial chairs. Strange Spanish Gothic wooden thrones, wooden file cabinets and abandoned band instruments filled parts of the basement: All things that once had a purpose and now were slightly too good for proper disposal, yet not good enough for utility or even decoration.
Members of the alumni association and the principal from the adjacent school accompanied us, alternating shaking their heads, tsking at the ruin and eager to show us the extent of neglect. Their previous outreach attempts were unsuccessful for a lot of reasons—most stemming from bureaucratic frustrations around the Department of Education, which owned, but would not preserve the building.
I was again drawn to the sadness of the building—its undeniable pedigree spiritlessly honored, the discarded mascots, the jumble of cast-off instruments. I walked around on its sloping wooden floors, imagined the quiet country landscape outside its expansive windows, felt its peculiar familiarity. It was almost exactly a year before I could articulate that.
Today, my story on Erasmus Hall Academy appears in The Wall Street Journal’s “Greater New York” section. I hope its alumni are nostalgic.