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There are four public schools in New York City with the moniker “P.S. 1”, but only one school can claim to be the oldest public school in New York City. Located on Henry Street in Manhattan, the school began its existence in 1806 as an immigrant school in a “small apartment”, predating the establishment of New York City’s Board of Education. In early 19th-century New York City, education was primarily the domain of private schools and church-sponsored charity schools. By 1805, there were 141 teachers for a growing population of 75,770 and then-mayor DeWitt Clinton began to recognize the urgent need for children of poor immigrant families to be educated.

DeWitt Clinton, 1823. Painting by Rembrandt Peale.

The Free School Society of New York was founded as a response to the “multiplied evils which have accrued, and are daily accruing, to this city, from the neglected education of the children of the poor”. The Society embarked on a mission to provide a free education for the children of New York City in the areas of reading, writing, arithmetic, and morals.

Italian Schoolchildren in 1892

In May 1806, “New York Free School No. 1” opened with 40 pupils on land donated by Henry Rutgers. The school quickly outgrew the donated space and a brick schoolhouse was built in 1809. In 1897, the school moved to its current building designed by Charles B.J. Snyder, the Superintendent of School Buildings for NYC’s Board of Education from 1891-1923. Snyder was responsible for designing many school buildings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in New York; the old Stuyvesant High School building on East 15th Street was one of his projects.

Charles B.J. Snyder, 1900.

The front facade features separate boys' and girls' entrances.

The building has roof parapets and wide windows for maximum light and ventilation. Upper and lower yards provide space for recreation.

Schoolboys in a toy-making class at P.S. 1, 1900. Courtesy of New York State Archives.

Schoolgirls in a nursing class at P.S. 1, 1900. Courtesy of New York State Archives.

Children at ballroom dance practice in the large and updated indoor yard. Courtesy of World Journal.

P.S. 1 has educated generations of immigrant children. In addition to academics, boys were taught trades like carpentry and girls were taught needlework and nursing. Now approaching 115 years of age, the building’s narrow hallways continue to reverberate with the sounds of schoolchildren, many of whom are now of Chinese descent.