thomas H. Kieren
As one of dozens of public schools closed during New York City’s financial woes in the 1970s, P.S. 90 has seen its share of hard times. Three decades of neglect brought perforated floors, a compromised rooftop, and a healthy resident pigeon population. The solid masonry construction, however, stood tall, and in 2008, L+M Development Partners acquired the five-story, 104,000-square-foot building for conversion into 75 condominiums—an ambitious undertaking that offers a model of adaptive reuse for Harlem.
Constructed in 1906 on a midblock site on West 148th Street, P.S. 90 is one of several H-plan schools in Harlem designed by Charles B.J. Snyder, whose historically-inspired buildings remain neighborhood landmarks across the city. Working with Curtis + Ginsberg Architects, L+M directed significant effort to restoring a central source of the building’s appeal: a majestic, Collegiate Gothic–style facade composed of red brick and limestone, large windows, and terra-cotta detailing. To that end, according to L+M project manager Mentor Haxhija, the team mimicked historic window profiles with new aluminum frame windows, while also working to conceal rooftop penthouses from the street, sacrificing indoor square footage but creating spacious outdoor terraces.
While the 16-inch-thick brick exterior was 99 percent intact, the interior structure was another story. Outdated in terms of today’s fire ratings, the original stairways were removed and the stairwells relocated. Most significantly, water damage had left Snyder’s efficient floor system with disintegrated metal supports and eroded concrete. Modern concrete slabs completely replaced four floors and half of the first floor—all of which affected interior plans. Architect Mark Ginsberg noted that apartment layouts were already complicated by the school’s large original windows, which limited the placement of walls, while the H-plan presented “a number of dead corners that made it hard to divide into apartments.”
Although L+M did not pursue a LEED rating, the building reuse incorporates sustainable features such as natural lighting, operable windows, and energy-efficient heat pumps. Light-colored paving materials are used on the rooftop and courtyards, the latter having drought-resistant gardens designed by Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects. The development also strives to be socially sustainable, with 20 affordable units.
With incentives still available for developing abandoned Harlem properties as condominiums, P.S. 90, with a total development cost of $40.5 million, might become something of a green pioneer. The owner of P.S. 186, another H-plan building just six blocks away, has plans to demolish the structure, but perhaps P.S. 90’s revival will prompt it to reconsider.