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I Sit And Look Out: Landmark Richmond Hill school stands as building of beauty

In the decades when Elaine and I lived on Park Lane South in Richmond Hill, I took many walks in Forest Park, which despite financial problems in the city, got better over the years. Some of my longer walks were along the residential streets of Richmond Hill, when I enjoyed the varied architecture and beautiful trees that line the community’s sidewalks.

On many of those walks, I was impressed when I came to PS 66, the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, on 102nd Street. I did not just walk past the school. I stopped to admire it and was able to do so more because 102nd Street is wide and by standing across from the school, the full effect of its stunning architecture could be appreciated even more.

I was reminded of those happy occasions when the TimesLedger Newspapers reported in January that the school had received a unanimous vote from the city Landmark Preservation Commission to become the first elementary school in Queens so designated.

The effort to have the structure declared a landmark, which would protect the exterior, was led by Nancy Cataldi, president of the Richmond Hill Historical Society, who died late last year. Phyllis Leinwald, the principal, and the students at the school had been vigorous advocates for the designation.

PS 66 covers the entire eastern part of 102nd Street from 85th Avenue to 85th Road. It is a block away from Forest Park and a block from PS 254, at 101st Street and 85th Road, which opened not long ago. The new school, while not a bad example of contemporary architecture, cannot hold a candle to the beauty of its exuberant neighbor.

The school was constructed in 1898, but did not open until 1901, when it was called the Brooklyn School. Forest Park stretches to the Brooklyn border and the consolidation of the city took place in the late 1890s, so the name was not a strange one.

But it was changed to the Oxford School — “Oxford Street” being then the name of the thoroughfare now known as 102nd Street. A three-story addition was added in 1905 and 1906. The school was named in 2001 for the late first lady because she promoted literacy and historic preservation.

More than 400 students from kindergarten through fifth-grade attend the school and it has a good academic record.

The style is what might be called Victorian eclectic. Features are a three-story bell tower, restored in 2001, and chimneys with paneled brickwork. Other details are pitched roofs and columned arches. As you look at the building, you see more items of interest.

Plaques at the entrance show that the structure has been cited by the state and federal registers of historic places and has received a Queensmark, noting that it is a historic building.

But above all, the building, to me, seems to say, “Welcome to this place of beauty and serenity. Within these walls, the learning experience is one which can be of wonder to all.”

I realized that feeling again on a beautiful, mid-winter day with bright sunshine. It is wonderful to see PS 66 at any time of the year, but that morning the building gleamed and exuded its own light. Once more I looked at it with deep appreciation for those who gave us this gem.

Goethe wrote, “Architecture is frozen music.” Harry Chambers, the architect of PS 66, composed a joyous allegro con brio of a building which delights our eyes and spirits. May it continue to give pleasure to many for the long life it so richly deserves.

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