It's doubtful that you've heard of James W. Naughton but very likely you have walked passed one of his magnificent buildings. Naughton, an Irish immigrant, moved to Brooklyn when he was eight years old. He became an architect after apprenticing in Milwaukee at the age of fifteen and upon his return to New York, he studied at the Cooper Union. In 1879 he became Superintendent of Buildings for Brooklyn's Board of Education and designed more than one hundred buildings, including Brooklyn's first high school.
Before Brooklyn had any high schools, it had grammar schools. Central Grammar School, opened in 1878 (known later as Central School) was located on the corner of Court and Livingston Streets in Downtown Brooklyn. The coeducational school was organized for students who graduated grammar school and wanted to pursue higher education. The first floor had small stores while the upstairs housed fourteen classrooms. It didn't take long for the school to become overcrowded, and for years residents of Brooklyn urged for a better and larger public secondary education system. In 1886 they got their wish when Girls High School was opened.
Central Grammar School located on Nostrand Avenue between Halsy Street and Macon Street
Robinson's Atlas of the City of Brooklyn, 1886.
Located at 475 Nostrand Avenue, Girls High School is the oldest surviving high school building that was designed to be a secondary school in New York City. Designed by the aforementioned James W. Naughton, it was intended to be the new Central Secondary School for both boys and girls, but there were too many students! Officials decided that only girls would attend the school and promptly renamed the building Girls High school. The boys would have to wait a few years for a second school to be constructed.
Girls High School, 1909
In the early days of Girls High School, there were no clubs, games or dancing. In fact, two girls who were caught waltzing in the basement were nearly expelled. It wasn't until 1902 that the school introduced clubs for its students. In addition to the strict rule of "no fun", girls were not allowed to read fiction during school days, nor were they allowed to check out books from the library. It was also against the rules to talk after they entered the building, especially in the hallways and auditorium. They were, however, permitted to talk during recess and lunch. Needless to say, this is a stark contrast from schools of today.
Girls High School Courses, 1897
Boys High School, located at 832 Marcy Avenue, opened on November 1, 1891. The building, with its giant red walls and high towers, looks more like a castle than a school.
Boys High School, 1911
In the spring of 1896, a scandal rocked both Girls and Boys High Schools. On the corner of Nostrand Avenue, a group of girls from the high school were talking to some boys from Boys High School. Of course, we know at the turn of the century girls and boys could not talk freely on the street to one another without some gossip ensuing. Principal Calvin Patterson overheard the "improper conversations" between his pupils and boys. He was so upset about the interaction that he punished the entire school -- he locked all the doors, ordered the girls to eat their lunch on school grounds and allowed no one off the campus without written permission. Furthermore, all 1,500 girls were instructed to "never flirt with boys" in order to have a "more dignified future." After this incident, the Times wrote an article titled, "Brooklyn school girls angry: They were said to have been forbidden to flirt." Patterson explained to the Times that he locked the doors to protect the girls from speeding trollies and to prevent "sneak thieves from getting into the wardrobes."
The Scandal of 1896
"Where are you going, my pretty maid?"
"I go to the High School, sir," she said.
"May I go with you, my pretty maid?"
"It's against my Principal, sir," she said.
Boys High School had a school newspaper, The High School Recorder in which students wrote short stories, covered athletic news, held contests and reported general goings on about the school. In 1940, the editors of the paper were lucky enough to meet with Walt Disney. Below is the telegram confirming Disney's visit to New York to meet with students and the article written for the school paper.
Girls High School handed out its last 150 diplomas on June 25, 1964. The Board of Education merged the two schools in the fall of 1974 by admitting the first group of girls to Boys High School. A brand new Boys and Girls High School building opened in February 1976 located at 1700 Fulton Street. Today, the landmarked Boys High School is home to Brooklyn Academy High School and the landmarked Girls High School is an adult continuing education school. Famous alumni of both schools include Lena Horne, Lylyan Tashman, Florence Eldridge, Isaac Asimov, Norman Mailer, Alan King, and Shirley Chisolm.
This is one of dozens of commencement programs for Girls High School that we have at the Brooklyn Collection. Dates range from 1890-1941.
Boys High School report card, 1960.
If you have any memorabilia about Girls, Boys, Boys and Girls High School or any other Brooklyn school, consider donating it to the Brooklyn Collection! And don't forget, there are only two more weeks to check out our exhibition: The Education of Kings: A History of Brooklyn Schools, which closes on February 13th.