For the past 17 years community leaders and residents have maintained and sought to go about preserving the St. Paul’s School in a responsible manner. Various proposals for senior housing, high-end residential, and a community center have been proposed though have failed to elicit the necessary community support to proceed. Now up to $5 million in public funds are being considered to demolish the building and leave an empty field, or “open space” as local boosters like to put it.
The Main Building was built in 1883 and commissioned by A.T. Stewart’s wife, Cornelia Stewart, in memory of her husband. A.T. Stewart was of course the leading dry goods merchant of his time, amassing a chain of successful stores and a fortune in the process. The Garden City entry in the AIA Architectural Guide to Nassau and Suffolk Counties (MacKay 1992:13) describes the Main Building as follows:
St. Paul’s School was from the outset an extraordinary structure. Designed by Edward H. Harris in the Ruskinian Gothic Style, a mode rarely encountered outside of an urban context, the huge mansard-roofed brick building, with its ornate 300-foot facade, 500 rooms and fenestration comprised of 642 windows, was, on its completion, Long Island’s largest structure other than a resort hotel. Polychromatic voussoir-arched windows, elaborate castiron balustrades and Dorchester stone trim were some of the elements that combined to make St. Paul’s such a successful exercise in Victorian exuberance.
This and a companion building, the Cathedral of the Incarnation were commissioned as a memorial and mausoleum for A.T. Stewart in 1876. The school and cathedral serve as bookends, demonstrating the deep commitment the Stewart family had to religion and education, or more simply put faith and knowledge. These values passed on from generation to generation through people who visited and used these facilities, and contributed greatly to the strong social fabric in Garden City today. It is difficult if not impossible to imagine one standing in Garden City without the other.
The removal of this centrally located historic resource would adversely impact the historic character of the Village. (Executive Summary, S-4)
The St. Paul’s School Main Building is an iconic aesthetic resource in the Village, due to its striking Gothic architecture and visibility on Stewart Avenue and adjacent open spaces. As such, the demolition of the Main Building would constitute a significant adverse impact on the visual character and aesthetic resources of the Village. (Executive Summary, S-5)
A fairly remarkable video is available featuring among other people actress Susan Lucci, Roberta Lane from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and numerous other influential people, all advocating for preservation.
A community group, the Committee to Save St. Paul’s has been formed to advocate for preservation. This group recently received their 501(c)3 status as a charitable organization. A proposal has also emerged to use the school for community uses. This deserves to be explored further.
Resources to assist them include preservation tax credits at the state and federal levels totalling 40% of certified rehabilitation costs, grants from government and private sources including the Preserve America grant which can be used for pre-development activities, and which other communities on Long Island have successfully applied for and received.
It is also worth noting the building bears some similarities to the:
- General Theological Seminary in Manhattan
- Sage Residential College on the campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York
- Rijkmuseum Amsterdam in The Netherlands
A dangerous game of brinksmanship is being played today with the St. Paul’s School. Village leaders likely throwing up their hands with the inability to find a solution see demolition as the only option. The terrible image and consequences they must be prepared for if they proceed with this option, is the slow dismantling of this building likely spanning several months. As truckload after truckload is carried away to some inauspicious fate in a distant landfill, this will be a severe blow to the civic pride not just of this community but of people throughout Long Island who will be deprived one of their greatest and finest historic buildings. With some work and effort, alternatives are still available, even though it appears to be the final hour right now. Could we call A.T. Stewart to action, he’d likely be one of the first to roll up his sleeves and find a solution to this problem. Instead it is the role and responsibility of this generation to perpetuate his legacy as expressed through this iconic building, and in so doing provide future generations with the example and inspiration this building has always and will hopefully continue to provide.