The three faces of the Chapin School are in evidence in a recent photo looking west across East End Avenue: At the base is what remains of the original Georgian-style building. Atop that is the first vertical addition, built in 2006, and the crane at left is being used to construct the second vertical addition, which will add three new floors to the existing eight-story school. Photo: Serene Green 84
Every morning, author and Upper East Side character Susan Cheever follows the same routine: She leaves her home on East End Avenue to walk her dog in Carl Schurz Park, always turning left, toward East 85th Street, never right, toward 84th Street.
Why? The memoirist and biographer does not want to encounter what she deems the loud, disruptive, unsightly construction site a few feet to the south, where the Chapin School is in the throes of a noisy, multiyear expansion project. Again.
Cheever, the daughter of the late short-story writer John Cheever, has lived around the corner since 1992, and she describes a nightmarish scenario.
“What they’ve done to that sleepy beautiful Upper East Side crossroads is not to be believed,” she said. “They completely ruined what was once a very beautiful Manhattan block.”
The exclusive all-girls private school has occupied the same building at 100 East End Avenue since 1928, and every decade or so, going back to 1971, it has enlarged or reconfigured its original footprint — at times growing internally, at times horizontally, at times vertically.
But every single addition has been in keeping with the vision of Maria Bowen Chapin, the educator who founded “Miss Chapin’s School” in 1901 and believed that her young charges — then known as “proper ladies-in-training” — should be schooled “under one roof.”
That’s been the guiding philosophy ever since, and so, the entire K-through-12 school has stayed in one perpetually growing building – not a spread-out campus cluster, or even across-the-street facilities, which is far more common in Manhattan academia.
The result, Chapin educators say, is that its under-one-roof approach has fostered a sense of continuity and community, encouraged student interaction with girls from different grade levels, and helped burnish its reputation as one of the nation’s top prep schools.
Unfortunately, pedagogic philosophy, however inspired, offers scant comfort to neighbors, in this case, mid-block residents of 84th Street west of East End Avenue, whose numbers include dozens of seniors in rent-stabilized walk-ups.
After all, many of them have lived through the clangor of construction projects past that steadily enlarged the Chapin envelope — first in 1971, then in 1987, next in 1996 and again in 2006.
Now, the cycle has resumed, and they’re in the midst of a build-out that began in May 2015 and is expected to last five to six years, with anticipated completion in late 2020 or early 2021.
Back in 2006, Chapin built its first vertical addition, adding two stories to its original, six-story, Delano and Aldrich-designed, Georgian-style building – the one Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis attended from first to sixth grades.
That initial skyward thrust created an eight-story, 132,328-square-foot, 117-foot tall school.
Chapin is climbing higher still. With an enrollment of 783 students and some sub-par facilities that don’t meet current needs, it’s embarked on a $135 million expansion, its second major vertical addition in a decade.
Renderings released by the school show three more floors added to the existing eight-story building, resulting in an 11-story, 176,249 square-foot structure that will top out at 186 feet. A projected fence to enclose rooftop recreational space will push the height to 207 feet.
“This project is vital to fulfilling the school’s academic mission,” said Anneli Ballard, Chapin’s director of marketing. “It involves replacing substandard athletic and physical education spaces with a regulation-size gymnasium ... for our student athletes, enhancing program space for science, engineering, math and technology classes, and constructing a cafeteria for lower school students.”
Three new performing arts classrooms will also be built to boost the music-and-dance curriculum. Current space is “insufficient,” the school says. The proof: Chapin’s high school dance team has been known to rehearse in the hallways.
The school’s ambitious aims, necessitating the inevitable racket of hard hats at work, has collided with life on a tranquil block. It has taken quite a toll. Serene Green 84, a citizens group formed in 2015 to oppose the project, cites collateral damage to both streetscape and quality of life.
“They’re the neighbors from hell,” said co-founder Cynthia Kramer.
The block of 84th Street between East End and York Avenues, already a bit narrow, feels even more closed-in due to worksite staging. So much so that when a tower crane was set up last month, its dangling hook appeared to “swing perilously close” to the walk-ups on the north side of the street, said Lisa Paule, the other co-founder of the group.
“I could almost touch the hook from my fire escape,” said Paule, who lives in a fourth-floor co-op at 531 East 84th Street. The operation was safe and supervised by building inspectors at all times, the school says.
The two women cited, among other issues, trash heaps, the occasional colony of rats scampering from a school alley, a day-long water outage, early-morning deliveries, truck traffic at all hours, the use of the block as a loading dock – and high-decibel noise so unbearable that even state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli took notice.
On August 31, his auditors determined that 122 noise complaints had been lodged with 311 about construction at 100 East End Avenue, more than any other work site in the city in the period between January 1, 2014 and June 30, 2016.
Chapin says the audit was performed during excavation work, which is “always the loudest phase of any project.” After it wrapped up in the summer of 2016, noise complaints tapered off. To deal with that issue and others, the school holds public meetings every four to six weeks to solicit feedback, brief residents on the expansion and mitigate impact.
It has limited after-hours construction, performs no exterior work on Sundays, altered garbage pick-up hours to accommodate neighbors, pays a premium so haulers don’t come in the middle of the night, and runs a “rigorous rodent extermination program” in coordination with nearby buildings.
“The school has and will continue to take extensive measures to ensure the expansion program is carried out in the safest, most responsible and efficient manner, with as minimal impact as possible,” Ballard said.
It’s an approach that has won over some residents: “They’re incredible neighbors who care about us, they’re considerate, communicate with us frequently, and clearly go above and beyond in reaching out,” said Hope Webster, who moved to the block in 2006.
Community Board 8 voted to oppose the project in 2015. It’s never reversed that position. And yet, in the two intervening years, the board has been impressed by the school’s performance.
“The Chapin School has been a model for other schools to follow as to how best to handle an expansion project in a quiet residential area,” said James Clynes, chairman of CB8, who said the school had set up a 24-hour line to call for any problems. “I’m convinced that Chapin is a good neighbor,” he added.
Cheever has lived through what she views as intrusive and disruptive construction before. During a 1996 build-out for a new library and theater, she penned a New York Times opinion piece, “My Neighbor, My Nuisance,” lamenting noise, diminished light, profound disruptions and the “building of a parapet where there is now sky.”
Why did she stay? She didn’t. In a recent interview, Cheever said that in 2001, she moved from the 84th Street side of her building to the 85th Street side to get away from the incessant din.
“Now, they’re not pounding on my door, shining lights in my window, and waking me up at six in the morning,” she says.
The ruckus was supposed to end in late 2018. Chapin said that original project completion date was “provided by a construction team that is no longer on the project,” and that when a new job-site manager came on board in 2016, it developed a new schedule, targeting completion in the 2020-2021 academic year.
“I doubt that Chapin is any more pleased than the community is with the delay in completing their expansion,” said City Council Member Ben Kallos.
Webster is philosophical: “This is New York, and I’m a lifelong New Yorker,” she said. “If there’s one thing we do in New York, we grow!”