Architecture review: The Stone curse

UWS school designed by noted architect could be razed to make way for residential project

P.S. 199 at 270 West 70th Street
P.S. 199 at 270 West 70th Street

Poor Edward Durell Stone!

Though Stone was one of the most original American architects of the post-war era, his name is heard these days only when someone is trying to tear down or efface his buildings in Manhattan. 

A half-century ago, Stone designed a fine townhouse for his family and covered it with a stunning Mozarabic screen that was promptly torn down after his death. Though later restored, the screen was only the beginning of his troubles.

Stone’s Huntington Hartford Gallery at 2 Columbus Circle, famously derided as “that Venetian lollipop building,” was completed refaced five years ago to become the far inferior building that now houses the Museum of Arts and Design.

And just two days ago the West Side Rag reported that one of his least known but most important buildings, P.S. 199, at 270 West 70th Street, could be razed along with the far more pedestrian P.S. 191 at 210 West 61st Street to make way for residential high-rises; the Department of Education is already soliciting proposals from developers.

The department, in response to the report, is insisting that it is only considering the demolition and — if Stone’s building did come down — the developer would be required to integrate a new high school into the new building, similar to the class space at the base of Frank Gehry’s 8 Spruce Street.

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Although I have some sympathy with the department’s wish to raise money and spur development —notwithstanding the fact that it has spent millions repairing both buildings — I would be sorry to see Stone’s little known masterpiece disappear.

Stone launched his career with the Art Deco aesthetics of Radio City Music Hall and then invoked the International Style in his work on the first building created for the Museum of Modern Art in the late 1930s. But for the rest of his professional life, he tried to break free from the restraints of the International Style — and his effort is evident in P.S. 199. Completed in 1963, the school is part of a continuum that began with Stone’s vision for the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi a decade earlier and culminated with his design for the Kennedy Center in 1971.

Stone thoughtfully fashioned each building into a long, pale, semi-colonnaded structure of one or two stories and dramatically cantilevered cornices that seek to awaken associations that go beyond pure denuded functionality.

At P.S. 199, Stone sandwiched the colonnade of textured brick beams between the thin base of the sidewalk and the even thinner cornice. What results is one of the most unusually buildings in Manhattan — especially for a post-war public high-school — and one of the best.

If at all possible, the school should be preserved.