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UWS Private School Debuts 'Town Square'-Style Building with Indoor Lawns

By Emily Frost | October 17, 2013 6:39am
 The building has transparent classrooms and Astroturf lawns outside the rooms. 
Speyer Legacy School's 'Town Square'
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UPPER WEST SIDE — An Upper West Side private school has opened a brand-new building — complete with indoor yards made of artificial turf, deck chairs and long "boulevard"-style hallways, its founder said.

The Speyer Legacy School, which launched five years ago to serve gifted and talented students, opened its doors on West 59th Street and Ninth Avenue this school year, leaving behind its cramped West 86th Street and Columbus Avenue location. 

The layout meant to evoke a town square will help students grow, said Connie Williams Coulianos, who co-founded the school with Esther Kogan of Columbia's Teachers College.

"Having physical space allows for intellectual space," Coulianos said. It also means the school can have its own chess, dance, music and science rooms, she noted.

The move has allowed the school to quadruple in size from roughly 20,000 square feet to 80,000 square feet, and it no longer has to share space with the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, which is housed in its former building.

The expansion also makes room for increasing enrollment, which has ballooned from 25 kids in its first year to nearly 200 today. This year marked the addition of Speyer Legacy's first middle school class, with the goal of having a full K-8 school with 350 to 400 students by 2016, Coulianos said.

Renovations and the purchase of the landmarked West 59th Street building, which formerly housed George Soros's Open Society Institute, cost about $12 million, Coulianos said. Tuition was increased this year from $31,000 a year to $34,000. 

Parents say they are excited about the new space.

"Speyer has always fed the flame of the 'burn to learn,' and now with this amazing new facility, that journey into learning provides all the tools that could possibly be needed," said Sharon Roth, whose son, Drake, is a fifth-grader at the school.

Transparency was at the heart of the design, created by architect Christopher Grabe, but it is also meant to teach children "how to shut out distractions when they need to," Coulianos explained.

Classrooms that line the edge of the building's second floor feature floor-to-ceiling windows "to reflect our philosophy of open minds and open hearts," she said.

Light streams in from all four sides of the building — a top priority for the school when it was scouting for buildings, Coulianos added.

"[Light] is important to health. Light has an impact on our ability to focus and your general outlook," Coulianos said.

The heating ducts and pipes on the ceiling have been purposely left exposed to show students the inner workings of the building and to foster a "sense of wonder," she noted.

Outside each classroom sits a plot of green turf reminiscent of an outdoor lawn. Some classrooms even have a collection of chairs or pillows on their plots.

Grabe, the architect, "always talked about a town square" in his design and strove to create that with long wooden-floored hallways called "boulevards," with rows of classrooms alongside them, Coulianos said.

In a few months, bookshelves will be placed along the hallways so kids can take texts and sit down to read, she said.

The kindergarten and first-grade classrooms are still under construction in a portion of the building that was once an operating theater for Roosevelt Hospital. The rest of the classrooms are arranged in a rectangle on the second floor, with the gym and cafeteria on the ground floor.