Saint David’s School Educates 400 Boys in a 19th Century Residential Hotel in New York City

Anchoring a busy residential corner on Madison Avenue in Manhattan’s Carnegie Hill Historic District, the distinctive Graham House, once an unsuccessful 19th century residential hotel, has been transformed by PBDW Architects into a vibrant new campus for Saint David’s School’s 400 elementary and middle school boys. Following an eight-year-long adaptive-reuse process, the long-neglected edifice is filled with the sound of happy, young voices and renewed purpose while its beautifully restored exterior enlivens the surrounding neighborhood.

PBDW Architects transform a 19th century residential hotel into a vibrant new campus for Saint David’s School’s 400 elementary and middleschool boys.
PBDW Architects transform a 19th century residential hotel into a vibrant new campus for Saint David’s School’s 400 elementary and middleschool boys.

History Lesson

The Graham Hotel and Apartments, as it was originally called, was designed in 1891 by architect and builder Thomas Graham as a 7-story Romanesque Revival-style residential hotel, the first such hotel east of Central Park. The L-shaped building, with its impressive limestone base, iron spot Roman brick in rich golden hues and exuberant 2-story carved entryway, had 150 windows, an unprecedented number for its time.

Unfortunately, it never met with much success as a hotel, possibly because of its then-remote uptown location. After passing through numerous owners, the hotel was converted entirely into apartments in 1922. Fire escapes were added, the elegant interior finishes were removed, and the corner dining room was converted into a grocery store. During the ’20s and ’30s, the building was stripped of the decorative band courses that wrapped around its fourth and sixth stories and the large copper lamps that flanked the entryway, all of which were most likely sold for scrap.

In 1951, Saint David’s School opened on an adjacent lot with modest beginnings in one of a trio of Delano & Aldrich-designed neo-Federal-style townhouses. Founded with just one teacher and four students, the school steadily grew to occupy all three contiguous residences. In the 1970s, the school acquired the neighboring Graham House, incrementally renovating and converting one-third of the building into academic spaces as tenants moved out. By 1995, a separate building on 94th Street housed the school’s gymnasiums, an arrangement that required students to be bussed between the two campuses in a process that extended the school day to 4 p.m.

The new STEAM wing puts science and art classrooms in close proximity to informal collaborative workspaces.
The new STEAM wing puts science and art classrooms in close proximity to informal collaborative workspaces.

In 2010, looking to consolidate the separate academic and athletic campuses, as well as meet the evolving needs of the school’s curriculum, Saint David’s School commissioned PBDW Architects to reconfigure the entirety of Graham House and renovate the existing townhouses. The placement of the regulation-sized middle school gym within the L-shape footprint of Graham House largely dictated the floor plan. Although the elegant façade suggested a monolithic building, Graham House actually was composed of three discrete sections separated by bearing walls and a light shaft. This configuration, along with the need to comply with current fire codes, necessitated demolition of the utilitarian rear of the apartment building and creation of an entirely new structure behind its historic street façades.

Even though the addition is set back behind a row of townhouses on Madison Avenue and its street presence is secondary, approval of the proposed design entailed three public hearings by the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission and numerous meetings with the community. The contemporary addition seamlessly integrates the exuberant architecture of the adaptively reused north wing of Graham House with the more restrained expression of the Delano & Aldrich wing and simultaneously conveys a fresh institutional presence for the school. On the roof, a pair of skylights runs the entire length of the new gym and a new penthouse fitness center above the historic building’s impressive cornice provides much-needed fitness space for the students. The design was also informed by feedback from the local community. For example, the penthouse was lowered and translucent glazing was used to afford privacy for adjacent apartments.

Surprisingly, few images exist of the historic façades pre-1922. In approaching the restoration of the historic exterior, PBDW Architects used Thomas Graham’s original 1891 rendering in the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide as a template to focus design efforts. The exuberance of the main entryway, diminished by years of neglect, was restored by rebuilding the limestone stoop and exterior wood doors. In addition, the unsightly fire escapes that obscured the façade were removed and a missing section of cornice was recreated. Masonry cracks were repaired with hand-selected Roman bricks, and the long-lost frieze bands were replaced with fiberglass-reinforced plastic reinterpretations, creating a rejuvenated street presence. Replacing 150 windows with energy-efficient aluminum insulated low-e-units created a tighter building envelope, reducing heat loss.

PHOTOS: FRANCIS DZIKOWSKI

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