(With kind help from Dr. Chuck Kaszynski.)
A word about our building. When Jayme and I started York Prep in 1969, we occupied the former premises of the New York College of Music. This college flourished in three brownstones on East 85th Street, between Park Avenue and Lexington Avenue. They had been reconfigured into very small practice spaces. By knocking down the walls between these rooms, the result was an internal space that at times resembled a rabbit warren. One had to go through some rooms to get to others. New York College of Music moved up to the old Juilliard School building in 1968, after Juilliard had moved to the new Lincoln Center complex. By the time we arrived, it had been deserted for a year, and the neglect was obvious. Jayme had to work hard to give the building a sense of charm and character. Given the realities of its configuration, and that the building lacked any feeling of spaciousness or architectural elegance, it is remarkable how well it served its purpose; how cozy it seemed, and how nostalgic graduates of the time feel about it now.
Within months of swapping those brownstones for our present granite edifice, the new owners of our old 85th Street building, The Ramaz School, had knocked the entire structure to the ground with a giant wrecking ball. They replaced it with a nine-story building that some may say lacks external charm but internally is eminently practical.
When we first entered our building at 40 West 68th Street, it was in a state of reduced glory. It had been built as a rabbinical college by Rabbi Stephen Wise and was opened in 1922 as the Jewish Institute of Religion, a college to train reform rabbis. Dr. Chuck Kaszynski (Dr. K, the Chair of our History Department) has done a great deal of work with our students on researching the origins of our building.
The building was in poor condition when we moved in on May 1, 1997. Determined to be fully complete by the opening of school that September, we had a very large and able construction crew remove the Sanctuary ground floor to make a triple height gym, design new classrooms, and completely renovate the plumbing, electrical, heating, and air conditioning systems. The last coat of paint was applied the day before school opened.
At the same time as we were modernizing this new collegiate space, we also wanted to preserve the intimate nature that we had enjoyed at the old school building. After creating the gym, we focused on highlighting the Gothic nature of the leaded Sanctuary windows that looked down on it, and the striking domed ceiling, with uplighting that gave it a warm feel. We replaced the old cafeteria floor with a lovely, sprung, wood playing surface. The doors to the former Sanctuary were replaced by the large windows overlooking the gym that you see when you enter the ground floor reception area. Those doors, beautifully brass covered, now hang on the fourth-floor corridor walls. They serve as both decoration and a reminder that they were doors to a place of worship. We ensured that the classroom doors and windows retained their Gothic shape, and we removed all the air conditioners that poked out of the front windows, and replaced them with split units so that there was a majestic unspoiled, external view of the building. Jayme found Amish carpenters to restore the handmade library windows, and a glass lead specialist to restore all the leaded glass that you see when you look at York Prep from the street. We were particularly careful to retain the arched nature of the corridors and the unique arches (and arrow slits) in our Chapel and Library. The front hall had hanging lamps and, when they were removed, the beauty of the dome of the entrance hall was revealed by the new up-lighting.
As we worked in each area, we felt a spiritual presence guiding us. I, sentimentalist that I am, still feel that the building has that spiritual grace that makes it very distinct. For some reason, Dr. Stephen Wise personally adopted the quatrefoil as the overall decorative element of the building. It can be seen throughout the building: on the stone carving of the staircases from the ground to the second floor, in the gym (look at the back at what was the choir stall and is now the upstairs Phys Ed. office), in the shape of the windows of the two mezzanine rooms, in the Chapel ceiling window, and in several classrooms. The quatrefoil is often considered a symbol of early Christianity. In England, we call it a “Celtic Cross”. It closely resembles a four-leaf clover and is popular in Gothic cathedrals (the South transept buttress of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, for example). But it was also frequently portrayed in early American religions. Both Mayan and Olmec monuments dating back to eight hundred years BC, depict the quatrefoil as representing the passageway between “the celestial and the underworld”, to quote Wikipedia. The origin of the quatrefoil is also often referred to as “of Islamic in origin” (also quoting Wikipedia, that trusted source.) In short, the quatrefoil has been used as a symbol in one way or the other by the ancient religions of Mesoamerica, Islam, Christianity, and, in our building, Judaism.
Dr. Stephen Wise was a politically active Rabbi. He marched for equality for women and against racial prejudice. We have, in Mr. Roper’s room, the first draft of his letter (corrected in ink by Dr. Wise himself) in which he asks President Roosevelt (“Dear Boss” is how it starts) to act to prevent the atrocities of the Holocaust. Did he choose the quatrefoil as a political statement of bringing different religions together? I think so, and it is noticeable that in the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue next door to our building (a synagogue that was built much later than ours), the quatrefoil has been replaced with a six-sided leaf, which corresponds closely to the Star of David (although without the points), a symbol that with the exception of the Mormon religion, is considered uniquely Jewish.
Many other unique features of the building have an interesting historical background. Although the prime purpose of the college was to train future rabbis, the room at the end of the third corridor which has a fireplace, was the adoption center for Jewish orphans run by Mrs. Louise Wise. Mr. Roper’s room, also with a beautiful fireplace, was Dr. Wise’s office, and Ms. Umansky’s room on the third floor has a very interesting gothic shaped door leading to the closet where Dr. Wise kept his robes. One of my favorite marks is the clear and large stamp “Carnegie” on the front of the steel staircase girder on the west side of the building. Carnegie Steel was sold to U.S Steel in 1901, and there are few girders left with the “Carnegie” mark like the one we have.
The name of the rabbinical college we occupy as a school was known as the Jewish Institute of Religion. It flourished while Dr. Wise was alive from its opening in 1922 until his death in 1948. In 1950 it merged with the Hebrew Union College whose center is in Cincinnati. Dr. K traveled there to consult with their archivist, and she, in turn, came at his invitation to visit our building. The result of this collaboration was not only an extensive paper on the history of our building, but also the recovery of several early photographs. Our Chapel was indeed the Chapel of the J.I.R., and the photograph shows the unique architecture that is unchanged. Dr. K has recently put up on our bulletin boards, photos of the front of the building with the faculty seated around Dr. Wise, photos of the ground floor worship space, and of the library which looks unchanged.
So we, and Dr. K, feel that 40 West 68th Street is still a warm and nurturing building. It is steeped in a history that far predates us. Now, in our 50th year, we feel privileged to be able to occupy and care for this spiritual educational center. We are not training rabbis, but we are striving to teach with kindness and passion, and that was the aim of Dr. Wise. It is a building of character, historical significance, and beauty. May it serve as a beacon of excellence in education for many years to come!
Ronald P. Stewart
York Prep School