The 1970s New Adventure on Pearl Street

A New Adventure Begins on Pearl Street

by John R. Martin

(originally published in 2008)

By the end of the 1960s it became apparent that in order for Brooklyn Friends to continue to grow, it needed a change of scene. The notion of leaving Schermerhorn Street at some point was not new. In 1941 and 1957 the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools evaluated BFS and found some troubling issues with the school’s facilities. When the Association visited again in February 1968, their report stated, “Your building is dated, although it has the charm and atmosphere of ‘the good old days.’ The committee urges that you begin to consider new construction in order to provide adequate facilities for today’s educational needs.”

The truth was that as much as the community had loved the little red school house on Schermerhorn Street, BFS had outgrown the building it called home. Much like students, the school was going through growing pains that could only be solved by moving to a bigger, more modern facility. Committed to remaining in the immediate vicinity, the school trustees examined numerous locations, including contiguous space, but they soon found one site they felt would suit the school’s needs: 375 Pearl Street.

When BFS bought the property in March, 1969, 375 Pearl Street was the former home of Brooklyn Law School, a handsome brick structure with seven magnificent stories, built in 1928. The building was spacious, but it needed renovations to perfectly suit the educationally progressive ideas of the New York Monthly Meeting, BFS, and its new principal, Stuart Smith.

In early 1970, Mr. Smith, as part of a dedicated planning group made up of BFS students, parents, alums, and Quakers, wrote a “five star” report in order to retain and guide architects in creating the best environment for the school’s students and faculty. He stated that the committee was planning for the 21st century and that they wanted to utilize the idea of flexibility. “We look for simplicity in design, but a school that is created in such a way as to encourage the curious, the innovative, and the bold,” he said.

The report also called for enough room for 650 to 700 students, a significant increase from the traditional enrollment of less than 300 at 112 Schermerhorn Street. The catch was to allow this larger group of students to continue to enjoy small class sizes so each student would receive necessary attention.

In order to make all of this happen, the school needed to enlist a firm that was both creative and innovative, and they found that in Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects. The process of renovation would be costly, but the BFS community banded together to help the school, with parents, alumni, and Quakers raising funds for the new building.

The renovation of Pearl Street came along with a new educational system that the school was adopting. The system, which BFS administrator Jennifer Knies described as “open-classroom education,” was popular and innovative for its time. “The original architects sat down with all the teachers and talked about how teachers wanted to use spaces,” Jennifer recalled. “They did an amazing job of putting up as few permanent walls as possible.”

While the actual renovation did not begin until 1972, the Lower School moved into the building in 1970. Jennifer began teaching the intermediate level, a combined second and third grade. “We actually used what is today’s cafeteria as our classroom,” she said.

When the renovation began two years later, the Lower School was moved out of Pearl Street to the second floor of a building on the corner of Henry and Montague Streets, while the Middle and Upper Schools remained at Schermerhorn Street. At the start of the 1972-73 school year, Pearl Street was not quite finished, so some Lower School classes moved back to Schermerhorn Street and some to the Friends Field House in Midwood. It was a difficult situation, but Pearl Street was ready for the Lower School in October. Proper heating and flooring would come later. Jennifer described this period as a “turbulent time” for the students and faculty, but a relatively small price to pay in the long run.

The final move, near the end of the school year in April 1973, exemplified the mood and ethic of BFS: students and faculty declined moving vans, opting to move everything themselves and save the school $8,000. Manny Narvaez, BFS Facilities Manager for almost 40 years, recalled, “Students, teachers, administrators, parents, maintenance – everyone – we all worked together to get the Pearl Street project finished. It’s hard to believe today that the plaster was still raw in 1973 when we moved in.”

Once everyone was in the new building, it took some time for the students and faculty to become accustomed to the new environment. Older students had spent a good portion of their lives at the “red school house” on Schermerhorn Street, and naturally were nostalgic for the past. For many, though, the extra space, the larger, more flexible classrooms, the new curriculum, the larger library, the science laboratories and the extra art facilities were an exciting change.

In 1970, Principal Smith wrote that he wanted to bring BFS into the 21st century with the new building. He was able to do just that as Brooklyn Friends has continued not only to grow, but also to thrive in its third century in New York.