Adding "cornice" to their vocabulary
Posted 05/05/2010 01:00AM

by Andrew Seguin

Remember the old saying, “If these walls could talk ….”? For the girls in Class 1, the saying is new, but they’ve learned that the Upper East Side is full of old walls that have a lot to say. To hear them, the girls had to speak a new language: that of architecture.

Through a program run by the Friends of the Upper East Side, an architectural-preservation group, the students have come to know terms such as cornice, gargoyle and arch. They’ve started to recognize steel and glass as emblems of the modern era and brownstone as a building block of New York’s past. They’ve even seen photographs of the Upper East Side when the neighborhood was more rural than regal.

“It’s really rich in content,” teacher Karen Katz said of the program. Plus, she explained, it seamlessly fits into the Class 1 social studies curriculum, in which students get to know the area that surrounds Chapin. The girls visit local businesses and institutions, such as the fish market on York Avenue and the firehouse on 85th Street, and often recreate those scenes later in their classrooms using wooden blocks.

The girls went after the real thing, and not a recreation, under the guidance of Sarah O’Keefe, a Friends of the Upper East Side educator. They set off down 84th Street to see how many architectural features they could identify within a stone’s throw of Chapin.

“You’re going to walk slowly so you can look on both sides of the street,” Ms. O’Keefe advised them. Each student was paired with another and was charged with locating particular architectural details. Some girls sought cornices while others looked for lintels, stoops or brownstones.

“How many buildings on this block have an arch?” Ms. O’Keefe asked them. The girls cast their eyes over the nearby structures and discovered that arches were a prominent feature on the block. They didn’t need to look much harder to spy many of the other adornments that they had learned about, because the particular block of 84th Street where they stood, between Second and Third Avenues, is rich with architectural detail.

Now that the Class 1 students can spot a pediment wherever they may be, wait until they begin to learn about the wider world of New York City next year, in Class 2. They’ll have their ears to the walls of every borough.