‘Castle on Concourse’ languishes in neighborhood poised for growth
By Maria Clark
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.