When Jersey City High School (now Dickinson High School) opened in 1910, the Jersey Journal claimed that "No technical high school in the country will be superior to this one" (Quoted in Gomez). The newspaper's high praise was for the city's new high school. Its industrial arts courses in "classrooms and workshops . . . fitted with state-of-the-art machinery . . . were offered, free of charge, to the immigrant populations filling Jersey City's tenements," reported preservationist and author John Gomez.
The school is also known for its architectural design and landmark status. The school's prominent location is on a hilltop overlooking lower Jersey City, New York Harbor, and the Hudson River. John T. Rowland, Jr. (1871-1945) designed the grand Beaux-Arts style structure. A Jersey City native, Rowland was the Jersey City Board of Education architect for 44 years. While the source of Rowland's inspiration is not documented, Sowinski Sullivan Architects (Sparta, NJ) claims the building's exterior colonnade may be modeled after the Louvre's colonnade by Claude Perrault (1668). Its similarities to European landmarks, such as England's Buckingham Palace and the Hermitage in Moscow (see Gomez), have also been observed. It cost approximately $1.5 million when first constructed.
The neoclassical revival building, three stories high on a rusticated limestone base and first floor, displays classical ornamentation on the brick and terra-cotta facade. Pavilions of Vermont granite strikingly contrast with the limestone base. Corinthian columns outline the building's center pavilions. The building's east facade displays the motto "KNOWLEDGE AND INDUSTRY" carved on an open book., and carved figures reveal the school's curriculum for academic studies (right) and industrial arts (left). Sowinski Sullivan Architects' website notes that the school's ". . . main entry is embellished with marble walls, frescoes and an arched paneled ceiling and the main entry hall includes Greek-designed mosaic terrazzo tiled floors."
The school grounds have a terraced hillside lawn in a park-like setting, popular during the Progressive-reform era. Granite staircases and wrought iron grace the two entrances. In 1933, Rowland also designed an annex to the high school with a gymnasium, cafeteria, and swimming pool.
High School History
The school's location at the southern end of the Palisades made it a highly regarded piece of real estate. During the Revolutionary War, Generals George Washington and Marquis de Lafayette observed British movements at the fortifications at Paulus Hook and in lower Manhattan from the site. The federal government purchased the property, called the Harrison tract, in 1804. After the outbreak of the War of 1812, the site assisted in defending New York. The following year, an arsenal was built on the property's west side to protect the harbor. The east side, where the school stands, became a campground for troops. In 1916, Daughters of the War of 1812 placed a commemorative bronze plaque on the school building's south side. During the Civil War, the arsenal served as barracks for Union soldiers and as a hospital.
In 1872, Jersey City's high school classes began on the third and fourth floors of Public School, No. 5 on Bay Street. A month after its opening, a fire at the school raised the issue of secondary education in the city. Residents debated the practicality of building a high school given the city's working-class population. The economic downturn of the national economy in the 1870s and the city's bankruptcy in 1879 drew skepticism about the prospect. Critics complained it would become "a school for the rich man's children, but supported by the poor" and educate only those preparing for professional careers and higher education. By 1896, however, overcrowded conditions at the school brought the determination of city leaders to obtain funding for the construction of a separate public high school.
William L. Dickinson (1819-1883), the Jersey City Superintendent of Schools (1872 to 1883), advocated for Jersey City High School. He taught at the Lyceum Classical School (1839-1859), later Hasbrouck Institute, on Grand Street, was the principal of Public School, No. 3, and a director of the Hudson County National Bank.
In 1904, Mayor Mark Fagan, a "New Idea" Republican, supported the city's purchase of the hilltop property from the New York Junction Railroad for the high school. It was not initially popular due to its proximity to the railroads, saloons, and Jersey City & Harsimus Cemetery. Despite these objections, Jersey City High School opened on September 6, 1906, with James J. Hopkins as its first principal. Its completion was timely as the student population was rising exponentially with the increasing immigrant population in the city.
The Progressive-era reform advocacy of free public education convinced the city leaders to double the size of the high school. In 1912, a northern wing was added to the high school for teaching industrial arts and mechanical trades to complement the academic program and offer a comprehensive secondary curriculum. The 2,000-seat auditorium, featuring a stained-glass ceiling, became host to large political gatherings in the city. Presidents William H. Taft, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt held political rallies there.
After the opening of Lincoln High School in 1913, the city's second high school, Jersey City High School was renamed after the city's Superintendent of Schools, William Dickinson. It was used for army training during World War I and World War II and began a continuing education program with an evening school.
Today, Dickinson High School, the oldest high school in the Jersey City school district, has approximately 2,700 students. In 2003, the firm of Sowinski Sullivan Architects of Sparta began a $30 million renovation--a worthy preservation project in appreciation of a century-old edifice for education in the arts, sciences, and today's technology.
Gomez, John. "Palace of Learning; Century-Old Dickinson High Was Patterned after Russian Treasure." Jersey Journal 8 February 2006.
Goodnough, Abby. "Once Upon a Time, When High Schools Were Palaces." New York Times (New Jersey) 6 October 1996.
"Superintendent for Twenty Years." New York Times 4 November 1883.
"Wilson Renews War on Essex Leaders." New York Times 3 May 1913.