Hundreds of City Schools are 100 Years Old. Can They Ever Be Made Handicapped Accessible?

For over three years, William Herrera has been able to indulge his fascination with architectural history as he walks the halls of New York City schools to determine whether or not they’re accessible to students, school officials and parents with physical disabilities. 

Herrera is on a six-person team of accessibility coordinators at the Department of Education that is documenting how the city falls short in its legal obligations to this population. This year marks the 45th anniversary of the federal law that guaranteed students with disabilities access to public education.

As of February 2020, the department had officially rated a total of about 670 buildings, of which 25 were found to be completely inaccessible and do not even appear in the publicly available database. Only 44 percent of the 645 buildings in the Department of Education’s database are listed as fully accessible to the physically disabled. The school system has over 1,000 primary structures in total. 

The building ratings focus on physical accessibility and range from 0 to 10. Ratings of 0 signify schools that are completely inaccessible and 0+ schools denote those where a part of the ground floor is accessible, according to the Department of Education’s website. Ratings of 9 and 10 are considered to be fully accessible schools, where “all educational primary function areas within the building are accessible.”

Herrera remembers being “wowed” by the intricacies of the historic buildings he examined, especially those constructed before any thought was given to making sure every child could navigate them. 

When the Individuals with Disabilities Act was passed in 1975, Michael Rebell, then a young attorney representing the United Cerebral Palsy organization, distinctly remembers thinking, “Wow, this gives our clients and parents all kinds of rights.” Rebell sued the city in a class action lawsuit that would become known as José P. Over the course of the litigation, Rebell fought to ensure that “at least one elementary school and one junior high school that would be barrier-free,” a goal that seems modest by today’s standards, he said. 

IDEA was followed by the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1992, which laid out standards for accessible construction. Most buildings built after 1992 score a 9 or 10 in Herrera’s database, according to an analysis of the data conducted by

But the median year of construction for a New York City public school building is 1960, Herrera said; a sizable number of the original buildings were constructed long before IDEA and the ADA.

One of the most prolific school building superintendents was C. B. J. Snyder, whose tenure lasted from 1891 to 1923. Snyder built around 400 structures and additions in his time, around 200 of which remain as functioning schools, said Jean Arrington, a former professor of English who has spent over a decade working on a book about Snyder. 

Read more about Snyder and Arrington here.

In 2011, Bruce Nelligan of Nelligan White Architects took on the renovation of PS 721 in Manhattan, a Snyder school built in 1912, which scores an 8 on 10 in the buildings profiles list that Herrera maintains. 

Nelligan’s firm completed a voluntary, partial accessibility project to provide elevators and accessible bathrooms to PS 721 Manhattan in 2018. The cost of rehabilitating the building didn’t exceed 50 percent of the value of the structure, which is the threshold that would trigger requirements to make the building fully accessible.

PS 721 Manhattan is also an example of a key Snyder invention, and one that has implications for accessibility efforts today. 

In Snyder’s day, the city could not afford to purchase lots on corners. “You had a mid block lot that was flanked on either side by buildings. One of his innovations was an H-plan, that meant that you’d have three facades on each side with access to sunlight.” said Jay Shockley, a former Senior Historian at the Landmarks Preservation Commission who has researched and written about Snyder schools.

By the end of his tenure, Snyder had built 46 H-plan schools, according to a School Construction Authority school rehabilitation guide written by Nelligan. The H plan is particularly hard to make accessible because “typically on either side of the building, there are buildings there,” Nelligan said. For instance, consider this model of an H plan school below, where classrooms line the prongs of the H and windows allow for ample sunlight to enter them.

“In Manhattan, old buildings were designed to be full,” Nelligan said. “Imagine you put an elevator shaft in either of those open courts.”

3D Rendering of H-Plan outline provided in the School Construction Authority’s Historic School Rehabilitation Guide.
Used here with the permission of Bruce Nelligan, Nelligan White Architects.

“You’d be blocking the classrooms. You’d lose a classroom on every floor.” And much like in Snyder’s day, the city can’t afford to lose classrooms given the size of its student population. 

3D Rendering of H-Plan outline provided in the School Construction Authority’s Historic School Rehabilitation Guide.
Used here with the permission of Bruce Nelligan, Nelligan White Architects.

In addition, PS 721 Manhattan is located in the historic district of West Village and was built right up to the street, which limits the work that can be done on the facade of the building, Nelligan added. 

Some old schools, particularly tall ones, did come with elevators, Nelligan said. He is currently working on renovating three schools that date from 1903, 1910 and 1923 that all had elevators in their original floor plans, he said. But the mere presence of an elevator doesn’t mean that these buildings were accessible. 

“All have stairs up to the first floor which were impediments to accessibility as that was simply not a consideration at the time,” he wrote in an email.

“The accessibility challenge is a whole host of obligations,” Nelligan added; some older buildings didn’t have toilets in them initially and used outhouses instead. When these buildings were later updated to have toilets, they were often placed on the upper floors. 

By 2024, the Department aims to have 33 percent of all buildings within any school district be fully accessible, and 50 percent of all primary buildings that house elementary schools to be partially or fully accessible, Herrera said. The School Construction Authority’s long term “goal is to make all of their schools accessible,” Nelligan said.

While the conversation around physical accessibility has certainly changed since the 1970s, the city has a way to go before it reaches the goals it has now set for itself. 

Read more about contemporary construction here.

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