Scaffolds have begun to come down at 54-25 Skillman Avenue in Woodside, revealing the long-awaited expansion of the city’s most crowded elementary school. The Kathryn Phelan Public School 11 crams 1,132 pre-K to 6th grade students into a three-story building and temporary classroom trailers, which exceeds recommended capacity by 27 percent. The $70 million, five-story addition, designed by Omni Architects, will boost the student capacity to 1,500 while adding an array of amenities.
Mark K. Morrison Landscape Architecture is behind the design for the thoroughly-overhauled schoolyard, which faces the 1.7-acre Doughboy Park.
Citnalta Construction is the general contractor.
The town of Newtown granted the land that comprises today’s Doughboy Park to the school in 1893. The three-story building of the Union Free District School No. 10 opened its doors a year later. The approximately 100-foot-tall belfry ranked as one of the tallest structures in Queens upon the county’s incorporation in 1897, boosted to extra prominence by its perch atop a roughly 100-foot-tall hill, one of the borough’s highest natural points. The schoolhouse overlooked Woodside to the east, where farmland made way for a rapidly growing Irish community. The wooded estate of Louis Windmuller, a local businessman and civic leader, sat west of the school.
When the five boroughs formed the City of New York in 1898, its nascent school system was so stressed that just 13,700 of 500,000 elementary school students went on to graduate eighth grade. The Woodside High School, renamed upon its 1897 accreditation, added two three-story wings in 1905, yet upper-level grades to be relocated elsewhere after just one year. The facility, renamed again to Public School 11, faced added pressure in 1909, when the Queensboro Bridge jump-started borough growth, and 1917, when the elevated IRT Flushing Line stretched just fifty feet south of the school grounds.
During World War I, local soldiers bound for Europe mustered at the foot of the hill north of the school. In 1923, the Woodside Improvement Association, founded by Windmuller and other local figures, honored the veterans, ten of whom fell in line of duty, with a doughboy statue, sculpted by Burt W. Johnson.
In 1926, Colonel and former President Theodore Roosevelt spoke in front of the statue at an annual Memorial Day event. In the meanwhile, farmland west of the school made way for the brand new Sunnyside neighborhood. Reacting to an ever-growing student body, the Daily Star suggested expanding the school.
Tragically, the schoolhouse burned down in 1951. Children were bussed to nearby schools as a three-story, Art Deco-themed replacement rose along Skillman Avenue and 56th Street.
The Parks Department took over the memorial and adjacent hillside in 1957, and the staircase that led to the old school entrance was removed shortly thereafter. Doughboy Park, also known as Doughboy Plaza, was officially dedicated in 1971. Curiously, city records still show the park as part of a 171,900-square-foot lot that includes the school grounds.
The school, which was rededicated after late Principal Kathryn M. Phelan upon her 1980 passing, added a traditionally-styled annex at 54th Street, capped with a hipped roof with dormer windows. The two-story building did little to alleviate crowding, and its setbacked position made inefficient use of premium ground space. At a 2012 town hall meeting, officials acknowledged the school as the city’s most crowded. Provisional trailer classrooms crowd the courtyard, yet some classrooms still house as many as 46 students.
The PS 11 expansion rises in place of the two-story annex. It will add 87,699 square feet, according to 2014 permits, accommodating around 500 students. According to the architect website, the school’s new main entrance would open into a three-story open stair lobby.
Aside from new classrooms, added amenities include a new library, a kitchen, cafeteria, an auxiliary gymnasium, and administration space. Elevators, ramps and other features will provide ADA accessibility.
The new design emulates the original building’s red brick and adds staggered gray volumes at the upper levels. Permits list its height at 87 feet, which may not include the mechanical bulkhead. The wide slab joins the skyline formed by adjacent Berkeley Towers and 39-60 54th Street, a set of four ten- to twelve-story residential buildings that replaced the Windmuller estate around the late 1960’s – early 1970’s.
The steel-framed structure is behind its promised 2015 completion, and a late-year or next-year opening is probable.
The Mark K. Morrison Landscape Architecture courtyard redesign introduces a running track, a synthetic turf field, basketball hoops, a playground, and gardens. Raised berms and a sunken amphitheater function as outdoor teaching space. Storm-water management and use of recycling materials adds an environmentally friendly component. The new school wing offers additional shelter for the courtyard, which faces the school building on three sides and Doughboy Park to the north.
The school anchors an array of civic facilities that form a communal core for both Woodside and Sunnyside. The Woodside branch of the Queens Library sits across the street from the school to the south. The pair faces the Charles Steinmann Square, also known as Steinmann Triangle, named after one of the doughboys that perished in World War I. The town of Newtown purchased the lot as part of the school grounds along with the future Doughboy Park site in 1893, and the land was ceded to the City of New York in 1898.
In 1936, Louis Windmuller’s children donated the wooded hillside lot west of doughboy park to the city, which transformed it into the Windmuller Park. Its playground is named after local firefighter Lawrence Virgilio, who perished on September 11 at the World Trade Center. A 2006 Doughboy Park plaque also honors 34 Woodside locals that perished on that tragic day.
2001 also marks the last time the park was renovated, though Windmuller Park was received its $1.7 million overhaul more recently. The two adjacent parks share a lawn but, surprisingly, are not connected otherwise. When the next renovation rolls around, the city ought to integrate the pair, which would form the largest non-waterfront park in western Queens.
The five-story PS 339, erected a few blocks north around a year ago, helps relieve pressure with its 472-student capacity. However, the historically-overcrowded school district is likely to face challenges in the future. Woodside’s abundance of underbuilt properties, adjacency to the 7 train and the Long Island Rail Road, and ongoing and proposed borough-wide rezonings suggest that the school may need to expand again in the future. Perhaps a fourth wing would be constructed at the north end of the site between the courtyard and the park, where the original schoolhouse once stood. The next generation of architects may choose to supplement scarce ground space with rooftop facilities. In a bit of wishful thinking, we hope that the hypothetical expansion would restore the iconic 1894 belfry steeple upon the Woodside skyline.