Mott Haven school building crumbles

The facade of the former PS 31 facing E. 144 StreetPhoto by Maria Clark

‘Castle on Concourse’ languishes in neighborhood poised for growth

By Maria Clark
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The passage of time has not been kind to the former school building nicknamed the “Castle on the Concourse.”

Entire sections of the roof have collapsed. Plastic tarps cover the holes. Rotted wooden planks shield the windows and cover gaping holes in the walls.

PS 31 was once one the top schools in the city and was housed in a building that was judged worthy to be a New York City landmark. Now it is a wreck.

Removing asbestos and modernizing its facilities wasn’t worth the price, the Board of Education decided 15 years ago. The “Castle on the Concourse” has steadily crumbled since the decision was made.

“We didn’t only lose a beautiful building. We lost a great school,” said Grizel Cabrera, a former school aide who worked at PS 31 from 1989 to 1997.

Despite plans to rezone the area to invite thousands of new residents, officials from the Department of Education have no plans to restore the treasured building that still stands on 144th street and the Grand Concourse.

“We are not currently doing any construction and there are no plans for reconstruction in the near future,” said Department of Education spokesman William Havemann.

The scaffolding and supportive beams wrapped around the building are in place to prevent it from collapsing, according to Wilhelm Ronda, the director of planning at the Bronx Borough President’s Office. When Ronda toured the building over a year ago, he noted extensive water damage and found that the facade on the North end of the building had crumbled.

“Clearly there is a need for funds to do more than just prevent it from collapsing,” he said. Emergency repairs would cost up to $30 million according to Ronda.

Ronda hopes the building can be adapted for a new public use, such as a performing art space or even a children’s art museum.

“I would like to use up as much of the building as possible. I hope at some point the administration will provide additional funding to do so,” Ronda said.

PS 31, named the William Llloyd Garrison School in honor of the great opponent of slavery, was designed and built over 100 years ago by architect Charles B.J. Snyder, the superintendent of school buildings who presided over the city’s Golden Age of school construction. It was designated a New York City landmark in 1986.

Under the careful watch of retired principal Carol Russo, PS 31 had blossomed into one of the top performing schools in the city. A New York Times article from 1987, headlined “Bronx School Excels Academically, Despite the Odds,” reported that 61 percent of students from kindergarten to sixth grade tested at or above their grade level in mathematics. Almost 88 percent tested at or above their grade level in reading.

“It was a wonderful school. They were given little in terms of resources, but Carol tapped into the enthusiasm of the teachers. She was a diamond of an educator,” said Irving Gikofsky, the television personality widely known as “Mr. G.”

A former teacher, “Mr. G” sent his daughter to PS 31 and took part in 28 consecutive graduations.

“When Carol retired, nobody could take her place. The giant left and nobody could fill her shoes,” he said.

The Department of Education closed the school soon after Russo retired in the mid- 1990s. PS 31 and its students were transferred to a new building on E. 156th Street near Morris Avenue.

Students and teachers still refer to the school’s former home building as the “Castle on the Concourse” because of its size and design.

“I loved everything about that school. I remember on rainy days when we couldn’t go outside, we got to watch cartoons or educational movies in the auditorium,” said E’Toyi Lucas, 29, a former student.

Lucas, like many of his fellow alumni fondly remembers the sheer size of the building, its winding stairs and long hallways.

“I always thought that it was so big and scary at times. It really saddens me that they allowed such a historic place to deteriorate. I pray that they would rebuild so that other children can experience the beauty of PS 31,” wrote Shemeka Gibbs in an email about her time as a student at PS 31 in 1983.

Herman Francis, a member of Community Board 1’s Municipal Services Committee, said that in light of city plans to rezone the Grand Concourse, the area needs a new school.

“We don’t have enough schools as it is, and what we have there is a beautiful empty building that should be a school again,” Francis said.

The “Castle on the Concourse” remains under the jurisdiction of the Department of Education and will not be opening its doors to greet eager students next fall or anytime soon. Shingles will crumble and water damage will continue its destructive march through the once stately walls.

The city’s Economic Development Corporation, which is responsible for promoting economic growth throughout New York City, has promised to “evaluate the feasibility of an adaptive reuse of PS 31” as part of the lower Grand Concourse zoning plan. It offered no timetable.

“I think we all have a connection and a passion for PS 31 and we would all hate for that school to disappear,” said E’Toyi Lucas.

A version of this article appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of the Mott Haven Herald.

20 thoughts on “Mott Haven school building crumbles

  1. I attended P.S.31 once, long ago, and the memories are as vivid as if I been there a year ago. I wish I could visit the school once more and remember my old teachers – who meant so much to me. I am beyond disappointment with the decline of the re-construction of the school. Now the playgrounds are homes to homeless people and the building itself, is a constant sad reminder of what could have been. The spirit that the school gave me is still in me because every time that I have to look at the school, I remember. How many schools can do what P.S. 31, the “Castle on the Concourse” has done for years and is now a legacy – that literally still stands?

  2. can you help me? I am trying to find any information that I can. I believe that my mother went to this school. is there any way to find information on school records names or any help that you can give me. please email me [email protected] . thank you rosanna

  3. It saddens me to hear what has become of my former elementary school. I attended the William Lloyd Garrison school for grades 3-6 and these were some of the best years growing up. Remembering the celebration around our school being declared a landmark made me think the building would still be a beautiful site. Although I no longer live in New York, I love to take my son to visit places from my childhood and this was definitely a location on my list of places to go until recently. My memories of my teachers, friends, and Principal Russo will live forever in my mind.

  4. How terribly sad that my former elementary school is no longer a place for children to make memories. I attended P.S. 31 from 4th to 6th grade. The memories of this school will forever be in my heart. My teachers. were Mrs. Gross, Mrs. Goldfinger and Mrs. Weaver during the great years of 1969-1972. There was also our gym teacher Ms. Gilman and Mr. Lewis who I remeber fondly too. As a matter of fact my sixth grade class along with Ms. Gilman put on our very own production of The Me Nobody Knows. There were also my wonderful friends, Persida Rosa, Maritza Cruz, Denise Redd, Ruth Pagett, Bobo Chin to name a few. I hope others shared very special moments at this landmark too.

  5. My god who could ever forget how safe and loved you felt when you were there! Truly simpler times! miss atlas was my kindergarden teacher miss gilman my drama miss johnson my home room 6th grade teacher and of course the king Mr lewis with his bull horn in the auditorium and playground. I used to walk 4 blocks to the school. I remember kicking thruogh the leaves in the fall and watching the squirles collect there nuts. playing tag in the playground and runnin up and down the various stairs throughout the school. How about the fire drills we practiced! You know you loved a school when you can still sing your graduation song ” Thanks for the memories, the days at 31, the teachers and the fun, the children and the moments on the concourse in the sun, how lovely it was….”
    And as it continues to say in the song. ” We say good bye with a sad look, we feel so lonely and blue, but we are intelligent children no tears no fuss, hooray for us! So thanks for the memmories I,ll always love you P.S 31

  6. My mother went to this school in the mid to late 1930’s, it had nuns as teachers if I am correct? I have her autograph book with the list of teachers. She went onto Evander Childs for high school. I plan on visiting this school when I am in town in 2 weeks, what a shame it looks like this. My mother only had the best words and fondest memories of this school. I hope it gets restored. I wish I could have access to find her school pictures as I do not have any of her as a child, would anyone know? thanks

  7. I remember attending PS 31 when i was younger, back in the mid 80’s. At the time it was a school for students who needed to be challenged more. I remember without warning one day being taken out of class at PS 157, and was told i was chosen to go to PS 31. Although i was scared, i went anyway, and really liked the school. It really was challenging like they said, I remember having a class where i has a book report due every 2 weeks; believe me, i hated that lol. I remember having to meet in the cafeteria every morning, having the dean Mr. Lewis get us all in order to go up to our class rooms. We had to stay perfectly still in order to get these things called “diamonds” for our class, and at the end of the month the class with the most diamonds won a prize, usually it was interchangeable lead pencils. I remember us playing outside, and when it rained, just like it said up above, us watching cartoons and educational movies during lunch. I have so many memories, and i was glad i had the chance to attend the school, it was a great time in my life. I attended there until the 6th grade then moved to Florida for 7th grade, but i will never forget it. I even remember the theme song we had when Mrs. Stomburg played the piano, and Mr.G the weather man would always come for graduations and or just visit. William Bennett, a member of the US Cabinet would also come see us, and also visit. I’m so happy i had this chance to let out my experiences. Hopefully more people will post a lot more.

    1. Oh yes our diamonds and trophy–everyone wanted their class to win. I miss those days at PS 31. I attended from kindergarten all the way to 6th grade. Mr Lewis seemed so intimidating with his bullhorn, not to mention he seemed like a giant to use because he was so tall, and always wore a suit. Let’s not forget about the infamous “wall” at recess if you got in trouble, or if he blew that horn and you didn’t freeze you got the “wall.” Does anyone remember Ms Stromberg our music teacher and Ms Kornberg–I loved her. I still live in NY in the Bronx and it’s a shame how they let our school just crumble, but I am proud to say that I attended the Castle on the Concourse.

  8. Man I love this school and I wish that funds would go through to preserve it. me and my friends are on facebook talking about all our old memories. Man my childhood was great and part of it was due to the school. i wish that kids these days had what we had back then.

  9. I attended PS 31 in the 1930s and remember wearing a navy blue skirt with white blouse uniform until shortly before World War 2. I lived across the boulevard at 450 Grand Concourse.The oldest(Gothic style) buildings on the Concourse. In the 1930s and 40s it was a beautiful clean area to grow up. A well designed playground was attached to the school enjoyed by the children in the area during the summer and after school. 149th Street Subway Station took us to the museums in Manhattan later, to Walton High School north west of the Concourse, then Brooklyn, to college. Sunshine would bounce off the apartment building windows from PS 31 across the boulevard like jeweled prisms. After the war many families left the Concourse for the suburbs as did ours. I am searching for a photo of the PS 31 as it was in the 1940s.

  10. I loved my school PS 31x, I was there from 1975-1981. I miss it very much. I’m sad to see what has happened to my school.i miss my teachers: kindegarten Ms.Beane,1st. Grade Ms. Beane again,2nd grade Ms. Saffer 3rd. Ms. Kowsaski.4th grade, Ms.Johnson and 5th grade, Ms.Flaherty.the best years of my life. I wish I can go back in time to 1975. Does anybody remembers the pictures of all the students on the back wall of the auditorium? How about our small library on the 5th floor? Lunch was pretty good too back then, real food! Lol!wow I’m getting watery eyes just thinking about my school. I still live in the Bronx and pass around from time to time. Mr. Lewis was truly the King of 31.

  11. Such a sad story! I have great memories and pictures of my childhood in this school. Ms. Vargas was a great kindergarden teacher, and Ms. Kelly was the best looking teacher i ever had lol that was my 3rd grade crush. Anyone have an update on them?

  12. P.S. 31 The Castle On The Concourse was and is obviously still loved by many. It maybe crumbling but it is still there for all who love her to do something about it, now wouldn’t that be something. Everyone has their own unique memory of this amazing school. When you speak about this school you can actually begin to see specific memories play out and if you concentrate as I do I can see my daughter practicing for the Storytelling Contest, I can see my other daughter playing the violin on graduation; oh the list goes on and on. You think of P.S. 31 The Castle and you can’t help but think of Carol Russo, principal as they are both one. The amazing teachers and staff the parents and most important the students. We were all so connected to one another, I believe this to be one of the things that made this school so special. I would love to see these falling pieces of The Castle take flight again to become what Wilhelm Ronda, the director of planning at the Bronx Borough President’s Office envisions “Ronda hopes the building can be adapted for a new public use, such as a performing art space or even a children’s art museum.” and to wrap it up by naming it “The Carol Russo’s Castle on the Concourse Performing Arts” Now wouldn’t that be something!

  13. I found a photo of P.S.31 ‘Castle on the Hill’ from the early archives of the board of Education shortly after construction. Photo in the Collection of Teacher’s College, Columbia University. Constructed in 1897-99 located at 425 Grand Concourse, Borough of the Bronx, New York, P.S. 31 was designed by architect C.B.J. Synder, the first of a number of Gothic styled school buildings with Tudor arched doorways and pointed windows topped with stone tracery ,central entrance tower and gabled bays, built in New York during his term as Suprintendent of School Buildings for the New York Board of Education , The impressive kindergarten through 8th grade (initially) school was highly rated for quality education.

  14. I love this school.I wish I could walk through its halls and revisit memories. When I was a teen I said I wanted my son to go to this school and saddly its not open. Even sadder is that times have changed and from the things written on here the school didn’t have another principal like Carol Russo. I wanted to meet with this woman one day when I went back and thank her and all of my old teachers there for their commitment and never giving up on me. I changed schools in the 5th grade to another school and attended M.S. 45 for 6th grade and then I left the state entirely. I have never came across a school like this one. It is truely sad to see its state now on vacation driving by the Concourse.

  15. What terrible waste of a beautiful building. I attended this this great school from 1956-1962. Carol Russo was my 4th grade teacher and together with Ms. Golia’s class we put on “Santa and the Spacemen, which they wrote together. Fantastic teachers and memories.

  16. My mother, who is still alive, taught at PS 31 from 1967 to 1991. I attended elementary school there from 1971 to 1977. It is such a shame to let such a historic building crumble. I was taught “you don’t waste good.” I guess the Board of Education has not learned that lesson.

  17. Hi Bronx Peeps. I am currently doing interviews with people who attended the school to preserve the experience of what it was like to go to P.S. 31 and the buildings itself. Most interview can be anonymous please reach out to me if you are interested in doing a quick interview.

  18. Well, this demonstraits how the city can DE-landmark and demolish pretty much any building they want to now, if it can happen to this one it can happen to ANY lanmdmarked building at all- just cite a few falling bricks and some broken windows, have some young crackpot DOB “engineer” who hates everything old to declare the building “unsafe” and order an “emergency” demolition allegedly in the interest of “public safety”
    Just wait till they do this to the Woolworth building, St patrick’s cathedral or anything else some developer wants the land under for condos.

  19. I attended PS 31 when I was a child. At that time I didn’t think about things the way I’d think about them NOW. I DO remember Mrs. Golia, who was my fourth grade teacher. She made a difference in my life, telling me to WORK HARD and convincing me that it was necessary to do that. Lasting words!

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