They Don’t Build ‘Em Like They Used To: A Public School Art Deco Gem in Valley Stream

A while back, I was driving around southern Long Island when I happened to pass by Valley Stream High School.

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At first, it seemed like just your typical deco-style public school. But the closer I looked, the more I started to notice a number of really unique little details…

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The first thing to catch my eye was over the main entrance…

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…which features this fantastic grouping of eagles…

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…each holding a lantern righteously in its beak.

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I love the whimsical typeface over the door…

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On either side are a pair of beautifully detailed globe maps – if you look closely, they appear to be topographical:

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Here’s the opposite side – note the ships making their way around the south:

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Crowning off the building is this gorgeous clock tower cupola, complete with four owls standing at attention. Would love to know if this still lights up (note: if you ever need to conduct electricity from a sudden clock tower lightning strike into a flux capacitor unit, this wouldn’t be a half bad place to do it).

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The main building is flanked on either side by two smaller structures – first, the gym…

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LOVE the typeface:

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More of those great lanterns…

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Above the doors, a suitably deco He-man runs through the clouds at Flash-like speeds, indicating the exact opposite of my typical performance in high school gym:

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The twin structure on the opposite side houses the auditorium…

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Again, with that great typeface:

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Here, a drama motif:

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A few more little details – original plant potters still in use…

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Finally, the Boys and Girls entrance signs are still in place…

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…beneath some trademark ornamentation:

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Built in 1929, the school was the first to be designed by Frederic Wiedersum. Today, Wiedersum Associates Architects is one of the oldest family owned architectural firms in the US.

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To me, the beauty of deco is as much in its simple ornamentation as it is in its basic geometry. Sadly, it feels like American public schools decided at some point to forgo the former and go crazy with the latter, leading to the austere, prison-like structures we have today.

Really refreshing to pass by a place like Valley Stream High School and be reminded that there actually was a time when people cared.

-SCOUT

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53 comments

  1. Nice post! VS Central high is a beautiful building. My mother was a 1939 graduate.

    You’ll be happy to know that the clock tower still lights up at night; the clockface is a very thin marble (or some other stone) with a spotlight behind it (four in total). Back in 1976 I went up there, thanks to a friend spending that summer as a custodian.

    Too bad you couldn’t see inside the auditorium; it is magnificent.

  2. Thanks so much for this post–I feel like school architecture is woefully overlooked. This is a beautiful school. That “Auditorium” typeface is of a kind I have never seen, it’s crying out to be digitized.

    I spent a number of years researching school architect James O. Betelle, and his firm, Guilbert & Betelle, did a number of great Art Deco schools from the same period, mostly in New Jersey. It’s amazing how these firms shifted gears nearly overnight from doing traditional Collegiate Gothic and Neo-Classical schools to Deco right around 1929-1931. If I may pimp my own pages on them…

    Weequahic HS in Newark is an Art Deco gem, complete with an historic Works Progress mural wrapping the lobby: http://jamesbetelle.com/2008/08/20/two-streets-and-a-school/

    The School of Fine and Industrial Art, also in Newark, is a bit more similar to Valley Stream with its brick facade and tower: http://jamesbetelle.com/2006/08/31/a-drive-through-newark/

    Lot’s more photos here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sweintraub/sets/

  3. A fabulous find! Keep them coming. Thank you. Yes, agreed: when civil buildings were constructed by people who cared.

  4. Valley Stream Central HS is still beautiful after so many years. I grew up in Vally Stream and so did my Mom. She graduated from VS Central in 1959.

  5. In the 1950’s ‘North’ and ‘South’ High Schools were constructed, after that time Valley Stream High School was renamed ‘Valley Stream Central High School’, though as you show the name on the front was never updated. I’m a 1988 ‘Central’ graduate, thanks for the great photos!

  6. Valley Stream has three high schools (two junior and senior, one just senior), as well as one junior high school. This one, which replaced the original Valley Stream High School that was next door to the current Wheeler Avenue School (and was originally a clapboard elementary school house), is called Valley Stream CENTRAL High School. The others are Valley Stream North and Valley Stream South.

    (and if I may insert a bit of self-promotion, I just wrote the Images of America: Valley Stream book which talks about this)

  7. I graduated in 1972. It is a handsome building. I see that the windows have been updated. While I was there I remember wood framed windows that could pull up from the sill or, using a pole and hook, pulled down from the top. It may be my imagination, but on a clear day, far in the distance, you could see NYC from the front windows. Then again memory plays tricks with us.

    • yes, you can see the city from the 3rd floor classrooms – you used to be able to see the twin towers.

    • Your memory was and is spot on. You could in fact see the empire state building and world trade center at one time. Also Burt Keller told me that when he was a student there, he could stand on the front steps and see open farm land all the way to the city. That always amazed me and I know Mr. Keller wasn’t the type to stretch the truth.

  8. You should see Floral Park Belrose elementary school. It is beautiful too. My hubnd nd on graduated from VS Central.

  9. I have always loved the architecture of my HS. Next time you’re in the Valley, check out Wheeler Ave Elementary. It’s very close to Central and has a beautiful entrance. šŸ™‚

  10. Bonus fact: This was Steve Buscemi’s high school šŸ™‚

  11. Steve Buscemi, Les Moonves, Steve Hytner (Bania from Seinfeld), Jim Breuer, and Fred Armisen to name a few more!

  12. Great article! I graduated from there in ’99 and took so many of these beautiful details for granted. I wish you had had an opportunity to enter the auditorium. There are friezes along the walls that, if followed from the stage to the entrance, detail the story of the Procession of Alexander the Great. Brings back so many lovely memories. šŸ™‚

  13. True its a nice looking building. I can still remember hanging out in the alcoves at the top of the stairs smoking and trying to avoid being seen by the principal. Too bad the neighborhood has gone down the tubes and everyone who grew up there up to say 1994 has moved further east on Long Island.

    • RS: I graduated in ’86 and we used to hang out on the alcoves doing the same thing LOL. What great memories!

    • What the hell are you talking about? It still is a really great neighborhood, with great schools and great upkeep. It hasnt went down the tubes. You are probably apart of that white flight group?

  14. Fabulous. Keep sending these finds to us. We love them. AND all the added interesting facts too.
    Have you ever checked out the old”motor Parkway” in Queens NY. It is all overgrown now and there is a grass roots movement to turn it into part of a larger walking path. It is near Alley Pond Park. When I was younger, cars would be abandoned here. I remember seeing a Ferrari here all burned up, that had become an insurance claim for someone.
    Also check out Untermeyer Park in Westchester

  15. also, Michael Brandon (Michael Feldman class of 1962. For a while, in addition to being an actor, was married to Lindsey Wagner. I think he lives in London now.

  16. I wonder why such times have failed to come back. Both in Architecture, music and many other things.

  17. The comment about Floral Park – Bellerose Elementary School . I not only attended that school , but came back to teach art there for 28 years. The lobby of the school is amazing with a leaded glass world globe that still lights up , great plaster ceiling etc. and the auditorium looks the same as it did when the school opened as it was restored a few decades ago. Windows on this school were replaced as were the front doors. You just can’t walk in to see the lobby to well – school security now , but the whole outward appearance except for a pasted on addition at the north rear section is as the school was built in 1929.

  18. My high school opened in the mid-1960’s. School lore said that it was all set to bear the name of a local dignitary, but President Kennedy was assassinated as it was nearing completion and the school board decided to name it Kennedy High. In any event, it has what seems like stereotypical postwar school architecture: an unadorned exterior, long corridors, low ceilings. You get the idea.
    The city’s two other public high schools, replacements for much older buildings, opened in the early 1980’s. Despite being less than 20 years younger than my school they are of a much more modern-looking design. The exteriors are more elaborate, there are atriums and interior balconies, higher ceiling heights in most places, and the traditional long corridors are minimized if not fully eliminated.

  19. Don’t forget we lost 11 Alumni on 911

  20. Don’t forget that Jim Henson was a graduate! Always heard that Burt (of Burt and Ernie) was our very own Assistant Principal, Burt Keller (or is it Bert?). Went to Wheeler Ave, Memorial, and a 1986 grad of VSC!

    • Jim Henson did not graduate from VSC. He was from Leland, Mississippi and then moved to Maryland where he got involved in television. He came to New York, years later, after college.

  21. Thank you for noticing this building and reminding us of the unique and exquisite architecture . I also fondly remember the back of the building facing the lake in Hendrickson Park. What a beautiful setting!

  22. Daniel Mendelsohn

    That school looks amazing, you should drive way out to Grenport and see their high school, it’s another great building.

  23. Graduated from Cearchitecttheays loved t architecture. If you like the style you should check out two NYC schools I worked/work at. George Washington h.s. now George Washington campus in Washington heights and Brooklyn Technical H.S. in Brooklyn. The auditorum at Tech is amazing. Beautiful. Definitely don’t make them like this anymore

  24. You definitely could see the city on a clear day. I watched the towers fall from my third floor classroom. In lighter news, years ago USA network did a Breakfast Club special where they interjected shots of Central H.S. and interviews from faculty and students during the breaks in the movie. It was probably around 1999 or 2000.

  25. I am a 1980 graduate of V.S. Central. I was always proud of the fact that the school was very unique.

  26. Camille Julig Herman

    Very intetesting retrospective I graduated from Wheeler Ave & Memorial & Central (1960). Great memories! One April 1 issue of the Crier (newspaper) Showed the tower “on the ground!’

  27. Richard Wiedersum

    Very nice pictures, you have captured features on a building that is very hard to budget and install these days. We use a picture of this building at every interview as it was designed by my Great Grandfather and was his first school that he designed. He went on to design many more of this style throughout Long Island, New Jersey and Upstate New York. Thank you, Rick

  28. Hi Scout!
    love your site and always use your recommendations for my weekend adventures in our area. I went to VS Central High and am now the volunteer archivist for our historical society. Just so you know, the clock tower DOES light up at night. Really love this building and recently been trying to get info on getting in on the list of historic places. Thanks for putting this in the spot light, it surely is a gem!

  29. Carol Hale Lipsky

    i went to Wheeler, Memorial, and Central.,I graduated 1963. I loved reading all your comments. Didn’t appreciate the architecture while I was there., I love this article and all the comments. We were all so lucky to have had such wonderful schools to attend.

  30. Class of 1984. Great pictures and thank you for the memories. My dad graduated from Central in 1936 with Bert Keller and my dad just turned 97 years young. Thank you for the great pictures and memories.

  31. Thank you, Scout, for taking the time to write this and to post such great, detailed pictures. I spent 3 years in that building and noticed almost none of these details. Maybe because I always went in the side door. ;o)

    Stacey Drucker, Class of ’85.

  32. I also went to Wheeler, Memorial, and Central (graduated ’82)
    Always thought we had the best looking school around…

  33. VS Central was built in 1927. First grad class was Class of ’28. My grad class was Class of ’78 Central’s 50th anniversary. That’s what it says on my yrbook.

  34. What beautiful pictures of a fine building. I hope the students there now can appreciate their surroundings more than I did[was graduated in 1980.]

  35. What a fine place!

  36. Gerard J. Petrocelli

    When at the graduation ceremony in 1980 at Central High School the administration said before construction of the this beautiful school there was a choice of having a swimming pool or the clock. I Think they made a wise decision.

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