THEN AND NOW: The New School for Social Research Celebrates 100 Years!

By Brian J. Pape, AIA, LEED-AP

For the first decade of its existence, beginning in 1919, the New School for Social Research and Alvin Saunders Johnson (1874-1971), a co-founder and leader of the institution from 1922 through 1945, operated out of six renovated brownstones on West 23rd Street. Johnson and others had been on the faculty of Columbia University, but resigned in protest against a lack of academic freedom when Columbia, like many other colleges, banned anti-war demonstrations on the eve of World War I. These scholars set out to found advanced adult learning based on their own liberal principles, to foster “a desire to participate in the democratic social reconstruction of western society.” In 1933, President Alvin Johnson conceived of the “University in Exile,” to expand the school’s program and to provide employment for German scholars expelled by the Nazis; thus, more than 150 scholars were able to escape to America. Shortly after it opened in 1934, this part of the school became the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science (eventually called The New School for Social Research), The New School’s first degree-granting unit. 

Designated an interior landmark by LPC in 1997, the school building’s first floor includes the lobby, with dramatically curving shapes and hard shiny materials such as polished stone and bronze to complement the softer forms and materials of the auditorium—all completely in harmony with Johnson’s ideas for the school. Urban created a unique theatrical space in the rounded egg-shaped auditorium in shades of gray accented with red which are at once dramatic and intimate. 

Most of Urban’s architectural work in the United States has been demolished; but his other extant buildings include the Mar-a-Lago (1926) in Palm Beach, Florida and the International Magazine Building (1929) on Eighth Avenue near Columbus Circle in New York City (preserved as the base shell of the 2006 Hearst Tower by Sir Norman Foster).

Check out to participate in its celebrations.

In 1930, President Alvin Johnson arranged for the purchase of four adjoining lots at 66-72 West 12th Street for 
a new structure. The school hired Joseph Urban (May 26, 1872 – July 10, 1933), an Austrian-American (Vienna born) architect, illustrator, and scenic designer, who had immigrated to the United States in 1911. Urban was one of the originators of the American Art Deco style. His design for the New School was his last architectural career commission, and the first time the International Style had been used in this country. The seven-story exterior of black and white horizontal brick bands and uninterrupted window strips stood in marked contrast to the nineteenth century brownstones surrounding the school. Built during the Great Depression, the old buildings were anathema to the progressive attitude. In fact, the school later hired Mayer, Whittlesey & Glass to build two new curtain-wall office-type buildings—of the blandest style—between 1956 and 1959 to replace the more historic buildings. These were attached directly to the original building, and connected to the school’s West 11th Street building by a sculpture courtyard and footbridge above. Their rendering shows the entire block between West 11th and West 12th Streets rebuilt with commercial towers, including a wished-for Park Avenue-like plaza fronting Sixth Avenue—all of which would have pre-dated the Landmark Preservation laws. Credit: The New School Archives.
NOW: The 66 West 12th Street complex still functions as the heart of the campus, although the school has greatly expanded, leased and acquired other sites in the area, with an “academic quad” that extends from 11th to 19th Streets between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, including the new University Center at 63 Fifth Avenue at East 14th Street. Fortunately, today the entire West 12th Street block is part of the Greenwich Village Historic District and remnants of the nineteenth century brownstones surrounding the school remain to give balance to the neighborhood character. Credit: Brian J. Pape photo.

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