In film and at our events, place is key. This summer, we’ll dive into the history of our venues and we start with New Design High School as we make our return there after a few years away.
The corner of Grand Street, which used to connect to its counterpart in Brooklyn (before the Williamsburg Bridge, via the Grand Street Ferry), and Essex Street, which was laid out by James Delancey, a British loyalist and area landowner, has been home to quite a few colorful New York City residents. Spies, infamous criminals, Olympic athletes and world-famous celebrities have all spent time here.
Before the school was built, the corner was home to the Ludlow Street Jail. The jail housed mostly civil offenders, largely debtors and delinquent husbands, (earning the nickname “alimony club,” from the New York Times), but a certain segment of the population housed there “paid” to get better accommodations that included a billiard room, cigar lounge and lavish dinners. Al Smith, immortalized in today’s political comedy dinner, would eventually be the sheriff in charge of the jail. More on Smith in a bit. For the sake of space, we’ll highlight just two notable prisoners: William “Boss” Tweed and Victoria Woodhull.
William “Boss” Tweed was the head of Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party political machine that played an out-sized role in the city’s politics for centuries. Sheriff Al Smith was also a member of Tammany Hall, but Smith joined later and the two men did not overlap. Tweed was sent to Ludlow Jail on corruption charges and while there he paid to occupy the warden’s office suite. Despite his lux setup, he jumped bail but was brought back, eventually dying in the jail.
Perhaps lesser known than but twice as interesting as Tweed is inmate and ultimate multi-hyphenate Victoria Woodhull. Woodhull was the first woman to operate a brokerage firm on Wall Street and first women to found a newspaper. While campaigning for president (she was the first female candidate for the office and ran in an election in which women were not allowed to vote), she was arrested for sending obscene material in the mail. In a move that might make all but the most recent election look tame, her campaign sent out a salacious account of the affair between married parishioner Elizabeth Tilton and prominent minister Henry Ward Beecher. Beecher, a fellow abolitionist and leader in the woman’s suffrage movement would seem an unlikely opponent but he vehemently opposed Woodhull’s advocacy of free love. Woodhull was placed in jail on election day and served six months there before being found not guilty.
As Woodhull and Tweed were passing time in the jail, the story of Seward Park High School (now New Design, among other schools) was just beginning. First as P.S. 62 Intermediate which opened its doors in 1905. The Lower East Side was said to be the most densely populated spot on the planet and home to more nationalities than anywhere else in the U.S. Residents saw public education as a gateway out of the difficult life in the “old country,” and schools held a special place in the community. In 1916 a ninth grade was added to P.S. 62, making it one of the city’s first junior high schools. In 1923 the school pursued an experimental path as a combined junior-senior high school.
Eventually, just the high school remained and was subsequently named Seward Park High School for William H. Seward, governor and senator from New York. Seward later served as secretary of state under President Lincoln. On the night of President Lincoln’s assassination, a Booth conspirator conned his way into Seward’s D.C. home, repeatedly stabbing him. Seward survived; supposedly a splint on his jaw protected his jugular vein. Despite having never lived in the city, he earned a few namesakes familiar to New Yorkers today, in the form of a park, an avenue in the Bronx and, of course a high school.
When plans were made for the IND Sixth Avenue Line (F train), the old school was set to be demolished. The site for the new school was chosen as the block bounded by Essex, Grand, Brooms and Ludlow Streets. On this site stood a few tenements, a now forgotten street called Essex Market Place, a Court House and Ludlow Street Jail, at this point a financial albatross for the city. The former school site became today’s Seward Park.
The school building as we know it was completed in 1929 and today houses five different small schools: the High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies, New Design High School, the Essex Street Academy — formerly the High School for History and Communication, the Lower Manhattan Arts Academy, and the Urban Assembly Academy of Government and Law.
Notable alumni of the schools include:
– Edwin Almonte, former pitcher for the New York Mets
– Julius Axelrod, Nobel Prize winner
– Lou Bernstein, photographer
– Vince Camuto, founder of Nine West
– Estelle Getty, entertainer
– David Gordon, postmodern dancer, choreographer and director
– Luis Guzmán, actor
– Jane Katz, Olympic long distance swimmer
– Walter Matthau, actor
– Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed spies
– Thomas Satch Sanders, basketball Hall of Famer
– Jerry Stiller, actor, comedian
– Aida Turturro, actress
– Keenen Ivory Wayans, actor, comedian
We hope this history gives New Design High School a little more meaning and context as we return to the venue with what else than a story of two colorful New York characters and the real estate that connects them in the documentary The Genius and the Opera Singer.