Exterior of St. Paul's School main building in Garden City....

Exterior of St. Paul's School main building in Garden City. (Nov. 8. 2007) Credit: Newsday / Jim Peppler

A landmark 19th century former Episcopal boys boarding school, once one of the top prep schools in the country, may face the wrecking ball.

Garden City residents will vote April 27 on a nonbinding referendum on a village plan to knock down the 128-year-old St. Paul's School building, a High Victorian Gothic behemoth that is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

Preservations are mounting a last-ditch campaign to stop the demolition, and hope to persuade voters to save the building and restore part of it for public use.

"It's irresponsible for any culture anywhere to allow a building like this to disappear," said John Ellis Kordes, the Garden City village historian. "It's your heritage. It's a magnificent building."

But some village leaders say that for the last 18 years, ever since Garden City bought the brick palace from the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island in 1993 for $7.25 million, they have tried and failed to find a feasible use for it.

Outgoing Mayor Robert Rothschild said the village has explored turning the four-story red brick building topped with spires and gargoyles into a high school, a village hall, a library, a health facility and luxury apartments. None of the ideas panned out, he said, and the village has been spending at least $100,000 a year to maintain the building.

Demolishing it would "stop the bleeding of the money and the open money pit," Rothschild said.

The village council has already approved a plan to float $3.75 million in bonds to knock down St. Paul's, which has about 500 rooms, according to Kordes. Officials said they want to have the support of the public before they move ahead, though the referendum is nonbinding.

Preservationists say it would cost $8 million to protect the entire building and fully restore about 10,500 square feet, including a large first-floor parlor and a second-floor chapel that could be used for public events. Rothschild contends the figure would be higher.

The Committee to Save St. Paul's and other groups say they can raise at least $1 million in private donations. The rest of the costs would be paid by taxpayers.

The school has a rich history. Completed in 1883, it initially was a military school. Kordes said students and faculty used to fire cannons in front of St. Paul's across what is now Stewart Avenue.

By the 1890s it dropped the military program, and for decades was one of the top college preparatory schools in the U.S. But by the 1970s, its student population began a long decline, and it finally closed in 1991.

The village still illuminates it at night with spotlights, and supporters call it a treasure that helps define Garden City's elegance. "This is iconic. This is what distinguishes Garden City," said Frank McDonough, a founder of the Committee to Save St. Paul's. 

 

St. Paul's School: Fast facts

-- Completed in 1883, originally as a military school. In early days students and staff fired cannons on front lawn. Later became one of the top prep schools in the U.S.

-- Built by Cornelia Stewart to honor her deceased husband, multimillionaire Alexander Turney Stewart, the founder of Garden City.

-- One of three iconic buildings Mrs. Stewart hoped would form nucleus of nascent village of Garden City, reflecting her husband's vision of a planned community, and also attract the seat of Long Island's Episcopal Diocese from Brooklyn to Garden City. Other buildings were St. Mary's School for girls and the Cathedral of the Incarnation.

-- Situated on 48 acres. It contains some 500 rooms, including apartments for faculty and bedrooms for boarding students.

-- Closed in 1991 after declining enrollment. Sold to Village of Garden City in 1993 for $7.5 million.

-- Famous graduate: Donald Trump's brother Freddy.

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