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Fate of St. Paul’s School Left Hanging in the Balance

Preservationist Weighs in on Village’s Predicament

Everyone in Garden City has heard and read quite a bit over the last several years about the looming destruction of St. Paul’s School. Built in 1883 by the widow of Alexander Turney Stewart, the former boys’ school is officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places and yet is in grave danger of being demolished. It is clear that the proposed demolition has more to do with a lack of consensus among the village’s residents on what exactly to do with this landmark than a concerted resolve to destroy the remarkable Victorian Gothic masterpiece. At what may very well be the eleventh hour, it is perhaps worthwhile to consider what Garden City would be like without St. Paul’s.

Being designated “A.T. Stewart Era Buildings,” not to mention being included on preservation lists, has shown to be little protection for the village’s original structures. Both St. Mary’s School and the old Garden City Hotel were torn down despite their historic status, a fate that now threatens St. Paul’s, especially with the Garden City Village Board of Trustees’ acceptance of the Final Environmental Impact Statement earlier this month. Will the community founded by Stewart, the so-called Merchant Prince, completely lose its identity if links to its past such as the once-prestigious school on Stewart Avenue are lost? Will it become just part of the suburban sprawl?

“In order to fully understand the historical importance of St. Paul’s School, one has to imagine Long Island in 1883,” stated Alexandra Parsons Wolfe, director of preservation for the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities. “It was primarily a rural place, dominated by farms and dotted by commercial areas with associated residential development. Churches, lighthouses and town halls were typically the tallest buildings in the landscape, and there were few if any that could come close to the overall scale or architectural ambition demonstrated by St. Paul’s. In many ways, Cornelia Stewart’s memorial to her husband put Garden City on the map.”

According to History of Garden City by M.H. Smith, who was appointed Garden City’s official historian in 1959, St. Paul’s was constructed of bricks from the Stewart family’s plant in Farmingdale. Smith notes that at the time of its completion, the school’s clock tower dominated the surrounding Hempstead Plains (and remains one of the tallest structures in all of Nassau County today). She also records the promise Alexander Stewart made to the populace of Hempstead Township—from whom he bought the land that he was to develop into the Village of Garden City—that attractive buildings would be constructed “so that a barren waste may speedily be covered by a population desirable in every respect as neighbors, taxpayers and citizens.” The construction of St. Paul’s School by Stewart’s widow helped to fulfill this vow.

“It was published in architectural journals of the day and praised for being a model of school building at the time,” explained Wolfe. “Along with the cathedral and St. Mary’s School, it brought a level of sophisticated urbanity to a suburban outpost and made Garden City unique.”

Smith’s book includes a photograph of the students performing artillery practice, taken during the period in which St. Paul’s was a military school. Not long after, recreational activities such as what Smith describes as the “craze” of bicycling caught on at “conservative St. Paul’s School.” Later, clay-bird shooting and golf—then recently introduced from Scotland—occupied the boys in their free time.

An item published in The New York Times in 1897 attributed the fact that “Garden City is known in the university world as an educational seat” to the success achieved almost immediately at St. Paul’s School. Classes were referred to as forms, and intellectual outlets included a debating society called St. Paul’s Congress and the opportunity to work on The Chevron, the school paper. Also, it wasn’t long before St. Paul’s became renowned throughout the Northeast for its track, baseball and football teams. Smith recounts how St. Paul’s rivals at Newark Academy shouted, “Hokey, pokey, sock the ball, here’s the time we do St. Paul!” and yet were beaten in a ballgame by the Garden City boys in the mid-1890s. In 1911, The New York Times reported that in the season’s closing game, St. Paul’s football team trounced Horace Mann’s team, 41 to 0, having already “defeated both preparatory and high school teams throughout the season.”

Interestingly (and perhaps ironically), Smith’s History of Garden City records that in the decades that followed, St. Mary’s and St. Paul’s “were able to weather both depression and future change.” The question remains whether St. Paul’s will meet the fate of its sister school. Can it weather the forces that are bringing it closer to destruction? Surely the magnificent site, which has been described as part of the DNA of the village, can be preserved with resourcefulness and determination.

The predicament of St. Paul’s is similar to that of a number of great houses in Europe, with the problem of how to maintain these properties resolved in a number of creative ways. For example, England’s Chatsworth Estate has been developed into a multifaceted, self-sustaining property, with an award-winning farm shop, onsite eateries, overnight accommodations for guests, extensive gardens, art collections, tours of the house itself, educational programs and more. The estate has served as the location for films such as Pride and Prejudice, The Duchess and The Wolfman. The key to success in maintaining this historic property has been excellent stewardship, supported by professional marketing, with social media and solid public relations in the mix. If an enormous estate such as Chatsworth can manage to be successful in this way, one could argue that it should be quite feasible for St. Paul’s to be repurposed.

M.H. Smith optimistically predicts at the close of her account of the history of the village that “high standards will survive and patterns of control will continue in Garden City.” She invokes the “farsightedness and resourcefulness” of the people who live in this community as the safeguards for its heritage. Is it possible that the residents of Garden City will allow the destruction of a structure as integral to the village’s character as St. Paul’s?

“There’s a strong contingent of residents who want to see the building preserved,” commented Wolfe. “What’s needed is a willingness on the part of the local government to take demolition off the table and work with the community to develop a plan for its reuse,” Wolfe said.