The Original Elite High School in New York City: Townsend Harris Hall

Today, in New York City there is a conflict over the fate of our specialized high schools requiring exams for admission, and eliminating for admission all but a small percentage of the students who applied. This isn’t a new issue and if we examine our own Townsend Harris High School’s history, we can see the roots of our present day problem.

Our original Free Academy when it opened in 1849 admitted students as young as twelve years old into what was known as the introductory class or “sub-freshman” year. This year was intended to fill in the year between the eight years of grammar school and the beginning of college studies. The school was named for Townsend Harris, who helped found the Free Academy.

Free Academy.

Free Academy. City College Archives

“The differences between the Harris three-year curriculum and a regular four-year one would be adjusted by a system of equivalents so that boys would receive credit for courses satisfactorily completed and avoid repetition.” [1]

The original sub-freshman class was reorganized as a result of new state requirements in 1897 when the city established a high school system and the sub-freshman year extended into a three-year curriculum leading to college. [2]

In 1906 it became a city high school offering a program for gifted students. The Annual Register of the City College for 1906-7 stated:

“In the Academic course the number and length of the periods of instruction in the various subjects are so arranged that a student can in three years complete his preparation for college, the total requirement being the accepted equivalent of that prescribed by the Regents of the University of the State of New York.” [3]

When the College of the City of New York moved to St. Nicholas Heights in 1907, the original Free Academy building was vacant. Part of the building was used for first-year Townsend Harris High School students. [4]

The curriculum was adjusted in 1908 so that the young men who completed it would receive the new College Entrance Diploma which had just been established by New York State.

68th Annual Register of the College of the City of New York 1917-18

68th Annual Register of the College of the City of New York 1917-1918 Hathitrust

Moving uptown, they relocated to the new Townsend Harris Hall and in 1915 Townsend Harris High School reorganized as a separate unit of the College of the City of New York with its own administrative board.

Townsend Harris Hall CCNY Museum of the City of New York Digital Portal

Townsend Harris Hall CCNY campus. Museum of the City of New York Digital Portal

In 1930 because of overcrowding uptown the school came back home to the 23rd Street new School of Business building where it occupied the ninth and tenth floors. By this time there was growing criticism of the school, being viewed as elitist and obsolete. Mayor LaGuardia fought to close the school.

Title Page of Crimson and Gold yearbook

Yearbook-Crimson and Gold, 1929

A letter-to-the-editor in The New York Times on April 9, 1941 under the title, “Townsend Harris Defended” said:

The expressed determination of the Mayor to abolish Townsend Harris, the preparatory high school of City College, is but another indication that we are at the end of an era. The news is disheartening; the Mayor’s position educationally untenable.

Many years ago the people established this select school wherein the capable sons of the city might receive a first-class, rapid training for serious future work. It has been a superior training given to superior minds by a superior corps of teachers.” [5]

On August 31, 1942 Townsend Harris High School closed.[6] There were various movements to reopen the school in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until 1984, with alumni support that Townsend Harris High School was refounded, and in 1995 it moved to a building on the campus of Queens College where it is today. [7]

Townsend Harris High School, Queens

Townsend Harris High School, Queens

Many of the original schools graduates went on to distinguished careers including Herman Wouk, Ira Gershwin, Richard Rogers, Jonas Salk and Edward G. Robinson. The new Townsend Harris continues this tradition with alumni such as Assemblywoman Nily Rozic, and New York Times correspondent David M. Herszenhorn.

The tradition of excellence lives on, and so does the argument opposing education for the gifted.


[1] The Bright Boys: A History of Townsend Harris High School (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000), p. 190.

[2] Sevan G. Terzian, review of The Bright Boys, History of Education Quarterly, v.42, no. 3 (Autumn, 2002), p.434.

[3] 58th Annual Register of the College of the City of New York, 1906-7, p.104.

[4] Selma Berrol, Getting Down to Business:

[5] “Townsend Harris Defended,” “Letter-to-the-Editor,” New York Times, April 9, 1941, p.24.

[6] “Townsend Harris to End Tomorrow,” New York Times, August 30, 1942, p.24.





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