In 1910 the Jersey Journal claimed that "No technical high school in the country will be superior to this one" (Quoted in Gomez). The high praise was for Dickinson High School. Courses in the industrial arts 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" reports preservationist and author John Gomez. The opening of the high school conveys the city's pride in its new educational facility. It could also be proud of the architectural masterpiece that is now a landmark building. Formerly known as the Jersey City High School, it is the oldest public high school in Jersey City.
Dickinson High School occupies a prominent location on a hilltop overlooking lower Jersey City, New York Harbor and the Hudson River. The grand Beaux-Arts style structure was designed by John T. Rowland, Jr. (1871-1945), a Jersey City native and architect for the Jersey City Board of Education for 44 years. The neoclassical revival public building, decorated with classical ornamentation and brick and terra-cotta facade, cost approximately $1.5 million when first constructed.
It is three stories high on a rusticated limestone base and first floor. The pavilions of Vermont granite contrast with the limestone base. Corinthian columns define the center pavilions. The words KNOWLEDGE AND INDUSTRY appear on an open book carved on the east façade. Carved figures on the right represent academic studies while those on the left industrial arts. The architectural firm of Sowinski Sullivan Architects in their Website note that "The 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."
Where Rowland may have drawn his inspiration is not officially documented, however Sowinski Sullivan Architects claim that the building design is similar to the 1668 colonnade by Claude Perrault for the Louvre in Paris, France. Similarities to other notable European landmarks such as Buckingham Palace, London, and even the Hermitage in Moscow (see Gomez), have also been observed.
The property is landscaped with terraced hillside lawn; staircases of granite and wrought iron at two entrances were intended to place the school in a park-like setting reflective of the Progressive era ideals when it was designed. In 1933 Rowland also designed an an annex to the high school that included a gymnasium, cafeteria and swimming pool.
The location for the high school at the southern end of the Palisades was long regarded as a prime piece of real estate. It was one of several ideal vantage points used by the Generals George Washington and Marquis de Lafayette during the Revolutionary War to observe British movements in the fortifications at Paulus Hook as well as across the Hudson River in lower Manhattan. The federal government purchased the property, called Harrison tract, in 1804. After the outbreak of the War of 1812, the site was identified as essential for the defense of New York. An arsenal was constructed on the west side of the property in 1813 to protect the New York harbor. The east side, where the school stands, served as a camp ground for troops. In 1916, the Daughters of the War of 1812 placed a bronze plaque on the south side of the building in recognition of the site's significance. Later, during the Civil War, the arsenal was used as a barracks for union soldiers and as a hospital.
The origins for a secondary school for the city began with the use of the third and fourth floors of Public School, No. 5, on Bay Street in 1872. A fire at School No. 5, a month after its opening, required the relocation of classes. Residents debated the practicality of the high school given the city's working class population, especially in light of the economic downturn of the national economy in the 1870s and the bankruptcy of the city in 1879. Critics complained it would be "a school for the rich man's children, but supported by the poor" and serve only those students preparing for the 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.
The Jersey City High School, as it was known, was an idea advanced by William L. Dickinson (1819-1883), the Jersey City Superintendent of Schools from 1872 to 1883 and an advocate of public high school classes for Jersey City residents. He taught at the Lyceum Classical School (1839-1859) on Grand Street (later called the Hasbrouck Institute) and was the principal of Public School No. 3 in Jersey City. He was also a director in the Hudson County National Bank.
With the support of Mayor Mark Fagan, a "New Idea" Republican, the city purchased the hilltop property in 1904 from the New York Junction Railroad. It was not initially a popular decision due to its proximity to the railroads, saloons and the Jersey City Cemetery. The Jersey City High School opened on September 6, 1906, with James J. Hopkins as its first principal. By its completion, the student population again escalated with the increasing immigrant population in Jersey City.
The Progressive era reform advocacy of free public education convinced the city leaders of the need to double the size of the high school. In 1912 a northern wing was added to the high school for the teaching of industrial arts and mechanical trades that would complement the academic program and offer a comprehensive secondary curriculum. With its 2,000-seat auditorium featuring a stained-glass ceiling, the school 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 second high school in the city, the Jersey City High School was renamed for Superintendent of Schools Dickinson. It was used for an army training post during World War I and World War II and began a continuing education program with an evening school.
Today, Dickinson High School has approximately 2,700 students. In 2003 the firm of Sowinski Sullivan Architects of Sparta, NJ, 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.