Hidden Treasures In A Brooklyn Public School (Including The Coolest Stained Glass Window Ever!)

Today (Monday) is the FINAL DAY to vote for a Partners in Preservation site! Click here to vote now – these places need every vote they can get.

A few months ago, I was scouting out in Flatbush, Brooklyn, when I happened to walk by Erasmus Hall High School.

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I’d driven by a bunch of times in the past, but this was my first time on foot. As I stopped to admire its castle-like facade, I suddenly noticed something…

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Just through the gates…

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…in what appeared to be a courtyard…

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What the heck was that in the middle of a New York City public school??

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When I saw the Erasmus Hall High School was on the list for a Partners in Preservation grant (the ONLY New York Public School, in fact – click here to vote now!), I jumped at the chance to go beyond the gate.

As it turns out, this was once Erasmus Hall Academy, the oldest chartered high school in New York. Built in 1786, the building today is in decent shape considering its age and neglect…

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…though the surrounding neighborhood has changed quite a bit!

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Erasmus Hall Academy in 1820

Land for the building was donated by the Flatbush Dutch Church, which still stands across the street. This is one of my favorite churches in New York simply because of how easy it is to picture a time when it was surrounded by farmland.

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With Alexander Hamilton and Arron Burr among its early benefactors, Erasmus Hall Academy first opened its doors in 1787 with a class of 26. The school began accepting female students in 1801, when enrollment numbered over 100. Below, a picture taken in 1940:

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Ultimately, Erasmus Hall Academy found itself competing with the New York City public school system, to which it eventually donated its land in 1896.

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Sadly, the building was looking quite a lot better in 1940:

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Left to decay for decades, Erasmus Hall Academy appears to finally be on the path toward restoration thanks to various preservation grants awarded to it in the last year.

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Erasmus Hall Academy is just one of the many gems to be found hidden on the Erasmus Hall High School campus.

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Designed by architect and Superintendent of School Buildings C. B. J. Snyder, the Erasmus Hall campus was built on land surrounding the old Academy structure in four phases, beginning in 1905.

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Essentially, the school grew from a small building on Flatbush…

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…into a much wider building on Flatbush…

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…until finally, the quadrangle to Bedford Ave was completed.

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While building details become more sparse as you move beyond the Flatbush facade (a cost-cutting technique), there are still some great bits to be found, like this odd fellow wrapped up in a ball and holding a cog of some sort (anyone know?).

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I love these enormous lanterns, which can be found all over the street side of the building:

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Meanwhile, a pair of serious looking owls adorn the main entrance:

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However, as you may have noticed, the Partners in Preservation grant is not for statuary or old clapboard school buildings, but for the “restoration of four stained glass artwork.”

Because as it turns out, Erasmus Hall High School has quite a bit of stained glass…

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…including one of the coolest stained glass windows I’ve ever seen:

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Ha, OK, before we move on, can someone please explain this one to me?? I get the others – chemistry, for example…

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…Architecture and design…

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…Earth sciences…

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…and astronomy…

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But what is this one?? The symbol for Slytherin?? Either way, it’s one of my all time favorites (anyone looking for a new tattoo?).

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One of the true gems of the school’s stained-glass window collection is a five-paneled Tiffany set, pictured here above the front entrance.

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Originally, this was centerpiece of the school’s library…which of course was later chopped up into smaller classrooms, completely obscuring the Tiffany windows.

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Installed in 1919 to pay tribute to Walter B. Gunnison, the school’s first principal, today you can admire them only at the most irritating angle imaginable.

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The central crowned figure is the personification of knowledge, garbed in Greek and Roman garb.

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If there’s a centerpiece to the school’s stained glass collection, it’s to be found at the front of the recently restored auditorium…

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Seriously – this is in a public school:

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At first, I was surprised that Biblical imagery was allowed into the decor of a public school. Then I realized these were actually depictions from the life of Erasmas, the Dutch Renaissance theologist, teacher, and priest for whom the school is named.

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The work is epic, yet was added to the building by Snyder at very little extra cost:

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Meanwhile, on both sides of the auditorium…

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…are additional stained glass windows, spanning all three floors:

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One great non-window detail…

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…pairs of red-eyed owls lining the auditorium’s columns:

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The final stained glass art to be restored can be found at one of the school’s entrances…

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Here, each panel depicts elements of America’s growth. In particular, I love the skyscrapers rising out of the log cabin:

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Below, Commerce and Transportation (also love the train!).

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Finally, Letters and Communication:

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The preservation work is being carried out by Public Art For Public Schools, a group devoted to saving artwork found in public schools throughout the five boroughs. As you can imagine, there’s very little money for this sort of thing, so every penny counts. Unfortunately, Erasmus Hall High School is currently at the bottom of the voting list, and today’s the last day…

SO BE SURE TO VOTE!!!

-SCOUT

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59 comments

  1. stained glass window that you can’t identify?… = biology/human biology of course.

  2. I thought maybe it was finance. /s

  3. I wouldn’t bet my reputation on this but: the skull as memento mori, with a serpent that represents the downfall and mortality of humanity, on top of a medieval book (book clasps and page marker with cross), leads me to believe it has to do with religion or theology.

  4. I suspect the window symbolizes literature, with a reference to Hamlet. The skull might be that of poor Yorick and the serpent is discussed in Act I:

    GHOST
    31 I find thee apt;
    32 And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
    33 That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,
    34 Wouldst thou not stir in this. Now, Hamlet, hear:
    35 ‘Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
    36 A serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark
    37 Is by a forged process of my death
    38 Rankly abused: but know, thou noble youth,
    39 The serpent that did sting thy father’s life
    40 Now wears his crown.

  5. I think that the skull is a memento mori, representing the vanity of life.

  6. This is a beautiful building and along with a lot of other city structures and organizations needs to be supported and saved. I do my best to support the places I can, but I am surprised that this High School with all of it’s famous and wealthy graduates needs money. It is a shame that these people do not remember where they came from.

    • This is quite amazing, however i attended Erasmus-hall or E-Hall and this is a terrible school there is no disipline, The amount of deaths that accured in this school because of gang violence is unexplainable. Dont judge a book by its cover, this is a bad ass school.

  7. Bible studies?

  8. I passed that building a hundred times my bus route takes me up Bedford Ave. I never noticed that building until one day while stopped at the light and the gate was open and I saw that original house and was amazed. I had to run home and look up the history of Erasmus HS and found out the story. Amazing… I love this stuff !!

  9. I would guess the snake/skull window relates to biology or medicine – the snake might be related to the caduceus or Rod of Asclepius, both of which are symbols associated with the medical profession.

    Either that or Death Eaters.

  10. C. B. J. Snyder will born and raised in Saratoga Springs, NY

    Any idea what that tree (by the dumpster) is ? Age ?

  11. Meredith Marciano

    This school is amazing. Some NYC public schools have the best art inside and we rarely get to see it. I just had reason to enter Washington Irving High School and thought it was the most gorgeous school (lobby area) I’ve ever seen. Dark wood details, murals, wall reliefs…having kids going through the process of school tours over the years has been a great way to get in to a lot of these places that normally the security guards don’t want to let you in.

  12. It’s the Dark Arts, of course!

  13. It’s a shame the Tiffany windows are so hard to see.

    Those lanterns on the side of the building look Tiffany-ish to me too. Regardless, they’re great.

  14. scull + snake + sun cross = Eternal life + Christian religion = bible studies

    • Susan Rosefielde

      Dutch art was filled with symbolism. The skull was most often used as a symbol of vanitas and memento mori, that is, reminders of time and death. However it can also be used, as in Rembrandt’s St. Jerome, to signify the seat of knowledge. When the serpent is shown with the skull, crawling through the eye holes, it may symbolize the god of knowledge, as in the guardian of the Tree of Knowledge. As such knowledge persists
      beyond death and the serpent has the secret.

  15. My mom went to Erasmus high, as did Barbra Streisand and I’m sure a lot of other kids raised in Flatbush. She said she got an excellent education there back in the 1940s.

    Erasmus was also featured in Celebrity Ghost Stories. Michael Rapaport had some freaky experiences in the basement of the school. True or not, it was kind of cool recounting.

  16. As a graduate in 1960 of “the Old Grey School,” I was flipping thrilled so see this article, courtesy of my savvy son. I am more than delighted that the facility has been preserved this way, and receiving much deserved honor. Kudos and MANY thanks to all responsible at Scouting NY for getting this out. THANK YOU!

  17. Like Meredith, I also recently went inside Washington Irving High School and was blown away; there are some real gems in the public school system!

  18. I think it’s supposed to stand for literature/Shakespeare per M Perkins’ theory

  19. Tania Duvergne

    Very nice to read these cool comments. To all the supporters – VOTE ERASMUS @ http://www.partnersinpreservation.com !!! It’s the last day!

  20. I would venture to say that the skull/serpent/book stands for “the wages of sin is death” Biblical idea. The book is the Bible, the serpent is the temptor, and the skull is death. So…i think it stands for religion/morality

  21. EHHS Class of 1949. Never realized at the time how beautiful it was. To me it was just scary.

  22. The skull on the book tells you that the influence and admiration of Molly Hatchet is both far reaching and timeless.

  23. The statue looks identical to the one in Rotterdam, (Erasmus’s birthplace)which is from 1620 and the first bronze statue in the Netherlands. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rotterdam_standbeeld_Erasmus.jpg

    oh and I think the skull stands for excellence in hardrock.

  24. I suspect it is the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge – presented by the serpent which also introduced mortality – the skull.

  25. Great post, my grandmother graduated from Erasmus way back in the day when it was private. I will share this post with my father (her son) who grew up in Midwood

  26. I think the skull stained glass is an allusion to Erasmus himself. He

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Erasmus-schedel.jpg

    He was Biblical scholar. The ourobouros = resurrection.

  27. I graduated from EHHS in 1991. Prior to my graduation the school was split into 4 houses, humanities, sciences, art/performing arts, and another that I cannot remember. It is ice to see that they have restored the auditorium, I remember it being brown. Many years before attending Erasmus I attended my grade school graduation in that auditorium. I believe there is also an Olympic sized swimming pool in one of the basements. It was restored a few years after I graduated.

    • When I went to EHHS (class of ’62), there was a sign on the wall of the pool that said, “Do not expectorate.”

      On a different note entirely, Barbra sang in Chapel (we didn’t call it the auditorium) long before she sang in Barclay Center, in fact, before she was Barbra. Surely someone could send her this and perhaps add to the restoration funds…

  28. I think the window with the skull and serpent may represent the healing arts, which begins with biology, so either or.

  29. The little burgher in the ball is a stone-masonry masterpiece and it is a hard slog – these guys get bored and take whatever opportunity they may to add a bit of mischief. Of course the cog and shaft refer to the wheels of commerce and industry but for laughs the cog can be construed as pubic hair. It really is a buzz to get away with these things, and neither the innocent nor the illuminati are offended, only fools who are neither -if somehow brought to their attention. Please forgive and forget if you are in the third category.

  30. I graduated in 1960 when there were “only” 5000 students there. We were on triple shifts as I recall, some students coming in before eight in the morning, leaving before 2:00 p.m., and some coming in near noon, and leaving around 5:00 (with no lunch hour of course). My older sister went there as well, as did my mother I believe. There was a Math teacher there named Ms Crespi who was ancient at the time I had her, with hands gnarled by arthritis, clutching the chalk in her hand, writing on the blackboard. She was still pursuing her own education even at that age . . . ever the learner and the educator. Other teachers were likewise memorable, and although Streisand an I were in the school at the same time, I don’t think I ever met her, or as she would sing it, “Evah met her.” Most indelible memories are of singing doo wop music on the sidewalk in front of Nedicks where my friends and I ate, not having the requisite budget for the clique that ate at Garfields Cafeteria! Memories. O to be back there then!!

  31. So this is the famous Erasmus Hall! I learned about it from Kenny Vance and the Planotones’ song “Looking For an Echo,” in which it’s immortalized.

  32. Im absolutely sick to my stomach after seeing what they did to the library. It was so beautiful when I attended school there from 1964 to 1968. It was like a sanctuary. The campus was so beautiful to walk in on a warm spring day. The Academy was used for offices for the guidance councillors. It is in such disrepair ir it appalling. Parking inside the Arch????never!!!!! Please don’t let this beautiful part of Flatbush pass away unnoticed!!!

    • They didnt change the library the library is still on the 4th floor what you see there is the art room they spilt the art room in half to make a detention room. The library is big with the wood chairs ans stained glass dont worry they would not do.anything with the library it has to much history!!!!

  33. This was really cool!!! I enjoyed reading about my school. I just graduated from 8th grade in that audtorium on June 27!!!! :) . In the basement of the old buiding is alot of instruments, chairs && rusty pipes along the ceiling. Its cool to see but the students are not allowed to go by the structure. Thx for writing this article :-*

  34. Like Stuart, I attended Erasmus in the 60’s (the late ones) and, also like Stuart, I credit my computer-literate son with alerting me to this wonderful post. The New York City school system was (and still IS in many respects) filled with gem-like public institutions (clearly, Erasmus topped the list from my prejudiced point of view), educating so many of us in ways that prepared us incredibly well for the rigor of any post-secondary school university or professional-school education we went on to acquire. Long may superb public schools continue in their missions! They need all our help and support.

  35. Great blog! Sorry to change the subject, but I recently had some hail damage to my house, so I’m looking to find a great roofing company in Nashville TN. Have you read any recent buzz? There’s a roofing company in Hendersonville, right outside of Nashville, called AE Roofing & Exteriors who could be good, but I’ve only seen a few reviews. Here’s the address of these Nashville roofers, 108 Midtown Court #203 Hendersonville, TN 37075 (615) 431-2283. Let me know your thoughts! Thanks!

  36. The school building is beautiful, but it is a shame that the school has a horrendous reputation that’ll never wash away. I blame the inevitable change in the neighborhood. Poor Erasmus Hall, through the various shootings and stabbing in the ’80’s and ’90’s… And finally closed in 1994. I strongly disagree with closing schools, but Erasmus Hall became so out of control that it did have to be put down.

    Undoubtedly, the school is much safer, but it’s ridiculous. The students currently attending the school do not deserve the building and I’d like to see it go to a private and/or specialized school. Erasmus Hall has one of the most beautiful campuses in NYC for a public school (others would include John Dewey High School in Gravesend, Brooklyn and Flushing High School in Flushing, Queens).

    Physically, the is one of the gems in beauty in public education. Academically, no. And it’s a shame because it’s all part of the plan to destroy public education in New York City. Thank you for this post. I’ve been inside Erasmus Hall only once but have never seen the pool and stained glass in detail.

    I hope Erasmus becomes one of the best high schools in New York City again, because the building is simply going to waste. So much successful alumni have graduated from there.

  37. OMG I GO TO THIS SCHOOL AND I DID NOT EVEN KNOW ABOUT THIS

  38. I graduated from Erasmus during its heyday, and I have very fond memories. BTW, the auditorium was called “Chapel.”

  39. I graduated in 1970. The graduation ceremonies were always held outside on the lawn, unless it rained for 2 days in a row, then it was held in the chapel, where each student could only have 1 guest, since our class had 1300+ students. There were 5000 students in total, plus or minus, with about 350 of them, all freshmen, attending at the anne, which was the 3rd floor of a public school some distance away. Juniors & seniors attended from 7 or 8 am until around 2 or 3 pm, with lunch hour starting at 10:30. Sophomores & freshman started arriving at 10:30 at left at either 4 or 5 pm, with their lunch starting at 1 or so. We didn’t have lockers; we had to carry all of our belongings & coats with us all day. The only floors that went completely around the bulding were the 1st & 2nd. If you had a class on the 3rd floor on the Church Ave side & the next class was on the 5th floor in the building across from it, you had to go all the way down to the 1st floor, run across campus, & run up 5 flights of stairs, all in under 10 minutes! We all had to also pass a swimming test. I remember having to wear the awfull swimsuit! Our gym uniforms were hideous, too! A weird shade of green! The stairs outside the main office and throughout the buldingsmwere amazing also. I believe that quite a few of the outdoor school / college scenes in “Law & Order: SVU” is filmed here. I now wish that I had taken the time & been able to tour more of the school when I went there. I would have loved to explore the towers on the Flatbush side.

  40. Please save this beautiful school.

  41. I used to love the architecture and the campus. The stained glass windows all over the buildings were magnificent. I used to go into the original building to speak with grade advisiors. The floors creaked and they sloped from so many footsteps on the wood. The library had incredible little rooms with ancient treasures, some under glass. This was my personal hide-away with a good book to read. I used to listen to the choral groups, boys’ glee club, girls’ glee club during class as the kids sang across the campus while I was supposed to be concentrating on my teachers’ lessons. The marble steps in the Flatbush Avenue building were worn down to extreme slopes and were so slippery on rainy days. I would take a short-cut to get around the buildings to get to class faster by cutting through the balcony of the chapel (auditorium). Remember, the first floor had two breaks at the arches. The second floor was the only floor which went all the way around all four buildings, the third stopped at the girls’ gym. The fourth and fifth floor corridors had breaks at the corners and could only be reached from staircases of floors below. And who could forget the oldest rooms with desks nailed to the floor in rows, with ink wells. I’m proud to have graduated from Erasmus Hall High School.

  42. I graduated in 1973 from Erasmus. Sorry I didn’t appreciate the beauty of the building while I was there. I do remember the chapel (auditorium) as being my favorite. And so wonderful to have an actual campus in a city high school. I used to cut across the campus to get to classes on the other side of the building as it was easier than going to the 2nd floor to walk around. Really good memories.

  43. Whoever didn’t know this that place is haunted. Someone was stabbed in the head with sissors and banged into the lockers in the lockeroom. Someone chocked to death in the basement. There was a lot of violence there. To this day ghost haunt the hall

  44. Class of 1946. Wonderful years spent there. I have “Studio D” floating around in my head as one of the rooms in one of the Towers.
    Great memories not only of Erasmus but growing up in Brooklyn.

  45. What’s up to every single one, it’s really a pleasant
    for me to go to see this website, it consists of precious Information.

  46. I’m glad to hear that some restoration is/has taken place. I graduated in 65. It was an honor to attend this school. I noticed only one or two people called the auditorium the “chapel.” That’s what I remember. Oh, those holiday concerts! Three choirs – all male, all female (cantata – I still remember that one and I think the leader was a Miss Segerstrom – spelling?) and a mixed group. It was an honor to EARN a ticket to the concert for your service to the school. And the Academy used to be referred to as “the Old Building.” What high school had a natatorium???? Periodically over the years, I have driven by and it upset me to see how much the building fell into disrepair. I wish that the word has been sent out in a more universal way to donate to the restoration. I had heard that the stained glass windows were ruined. Nice to know that they can be restored. Well, the saying goes, “You never can go back.” Keep the memories!

    • Neil Mendick…Please note that we are having our 50th Reunion in May 2015. Your name is on my list but I have no contact info for you. Thanks, Gail

  47. Sandra Steinberg

    I graduated from E.H.H.S in ’65 with a graduating class of 1800 students! I had volunteered to work in the small house in the college reference section.
    Students received one of 4 diplomas…ACADEMIC, SECRETARIAL, VOCATIONAL AND GENERAL. . Plumbers and electricians made more money than I did after many years of teaching!!!
    50 YEAR REUNION FOR 1965 GRADS MAY 30 WEEKEND 2015m

  48. Not sure if you went in to the library but it too has some wonderful stained glass – including the crests of some of the original Dutch families that founded the area and the original school house. The library was designed by Ella Suydam, a descendant of one of the families, and modeled after Oxford’s library.

    Last time I was in the old schoolhouse it was clear that it had been subject to some typical School Construction work and modifications. Hopefully it will be restore someday.

  49. Thank you, thank you for all the wonderful posts. I too attended Erasmus in1964. Wonderful to see photos of such beautiful memories forever engraved in my memory of this beautiful place. Thank you.

  50. I was so happy to see this about my high school, Erasmus Hall. I graduated in 1962, and the school was wonderful then. We had great teachers, and the story went that teachers were begging to teach there. We had 11 Westinghouse or National Merit finalists in my class-more than any other city HS. We had about 1,600 in my class, and sometimes it was fun trying to get to class on time. I went on to college, and this school prepared me well for it. Thank you for this article.

  51. I graduated from EHHS in 1966; I’m a second-generation graduate (my mother was in the class of 1935). I have fond memories of the Christmas concerts in the Chapel (as the auditorium was called) and of John V. Lindsay’s addressing the students after he was elected Mayor in 1965.

  52. 1970 graduate. It was a beautiful school and the quad was as good a hangout as any.

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