Makeover for a West Side building

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The Alexander Robertson School gets a cleaning — and students get a lesson in culture and science


  • Fourth-grade students at the Alexander Robertson School wait to be dismissed by their teacher. Photo: Sophie Herbut

  • The Church's entrance on 96th street is still covered by scaffolding that is expected to come down within a few weeks. The scaffolding has been up for over a decade. Photo: Sophie Herbut

  • A Karcher employee pressure-cleans the building. The company partnered with the Alexander Robertson School as part of their cultural sponsorship program. Photo: Romina Hendlin

The faculty at the Alexander Robertson School on 95th Street and Central Park West could not remember the last time the exterior of the building had been cleaned, but they said it was about 80 years ago. Because of cosmetic wear, there was scaffolding around the school for more than a decade. This made it easy to overlook the grand, Gothic structure.

The school, which is run by the Second Presbyterian Church, partnered with Karcher, a power-wash supplies company originally from Germany, to clean and restore the historic school as part of a cultural sponsorship.

Bram Lewis, chair of the school committee and an elder of the church, said the delay in cleaning the school was “benign neglect.” Because of the advanced technology and environmentally-sound solutions Karcher uses, school officials are more confident in the sustainability of the building. Lewis was glad older, harsher chemicals weren’t used to potentially erode the exterior.

Karcher’s cultural sponsorships started 35 years ago as a philanthropic program to help historic structures and their communities, according to Kris Cannon-Schmitt, head of marketing and communication of Karcher’s North American branch.

Through this sponsorship, Karcher has cleaned Mount Rushmore, the Seattle Space Needle, and the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

“When you’re an old church,” Lewis said, “and you’re scrounging around for every penny you can find and they come and do this work for free, it takes a weight off.”

This is the first step in a list of renovations the school and church have started, including redoing the electric system and repairing the roofs.

Lewis had a personal connection who told him about Karcher and the work they do. After speaking with Karcher, Lewis thought they were a “perfect fit” and work began nine months later.

The school, founded in 1789 by Alexander Robertson, a successful merchant, was one of the first co-ed schools in the city. That same year, George Washington was elected president and the French stormed the Bastille.

Irwin Shlachter, head of the school, said Alexander Robertson is choosing to preserve its history instead of remodeling as other buildings have done throughout the city. “What’s interesting about Manhattan,” Shlachter said, “is that there these historic relics and hundred-year-old buildings that are being redone into giant glass buildings without thinking of restoring [them].”

The irony of a foreign company preserving American history is not lost on the faculty of Alexander Robertson School, but they valued the opportunity to teach their students about cultural sponsporships and the science of restoration.

“[This was] to help them understand sponsorship and giving back to the community,” said Joan Harrison, director of communications and community relations.

Harrison was brought into the school about three years ago, along with Shlachter, as part of an initiative to expand the school. The number of students has doubled and they are almost at capacity now.

Before the cleaning, the school had scaffolding covering their entrance on 95th street for 13 years. It prevented the students, and other passersby, from seeing the school’s structure completely.

When it came off, some students who have been in the school for a few years noticed immediately.

“At first, I didn’t love it,” said Pete, a fourth-grade student. “Because I wasn’t used to it. But now I like it.”

Although the scaffolding on the 96th Street side is still there, it’s expected to come down in a few weeks.

“I’m excited for it to come off,” said Cannon-Schmitt. “I’m also excited for people to recognize what we can offer them.”

The school and church’s exterior was also a mystery to its faculty. Harrison mentioned they did not know the building had been painted gray until the employees at Karcher began working.

It’s a transformative time for the school, but they hold onto and value their roots.

“Historically, this was a pied-a-terre for the people who lived downtown,” Shlachter said. “All these buildings were built around the same time. When you go to other countries and you see relics of their history, they’re preserved.”

At a time when it seems that every old building is being replaced with sky-rise, luxury condos, the Alexander Robertson School is doing what it can to preserve its history.

“This is what New York really represents,” Shlachter said.

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