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This monthly feature highlights recent and fascinating National Register listings and eligible properties, tax act projects, compliance review success stories, as well as outstanding local efforts in New Jersey’s historic preservation efforts.

School’s Out at the Boylan Street School

Newark, NJ


Newark, New Jersey’s school district was thriving in the late 19th-early 20th centuries, having built 88 new school buildings in the 60 years between 1860-1920. The level of education in the city was highly respected throughout the State. So, when the district’s leaders learned of the pioneering and successful Open Air School Movement that was sweeping Europe and America, they took notice. “Fresh Air” schools, as they were also known, provided a treatment for children suffering from tuberculous. The frightening disease was rampant at this time.

Tuberculosis, aka “consumption,” has appeared on death lists since the time of Hippocrates. The dreadful illness had been regarded by many as hereditary, with little to be done to cure it. It wasn’t until 1882 when Dr. Robert Koch proved the disease is contracted by taking the germs into one’s body. Thus began one of the most effective crusades that has ever been waged against a disease. An increasing number of tireless, anti-tuberculosis societies took up a campaign of education with two objectives:

  • Prevention – to acquaint people with the new facts, and promote the benefits of fresh air, sunshine, rest and nourishing food
  • Medical Care – to establish sanitaria and hospitals to treat victims of the disease with these benefits. Fresh air was thought to help kill the tuberculosis bacteria. (Antibiotics would not become available until the mid-20th century.)


The Open Air School Movement first began in Berlin, Germany. In 1904, school authorities there had an innovative idea that proved highly successful. To improve the health and intellect of the many sickly and tubercular German children, they were sent daily to an outdoor school with a curriculum of rest, play and study, and fed three nourishing meals a day. Three months later, these children returned to their regular schools, completely cured. News of this highly effective experiment quickly spread across Europe and abroad, and the Open Air School model was born.

First Open Air School, Charlottenburg/Berlin, Germany
Photo courtesy of Designing Modern Childhoods

First American Open Air School
Providence Rhode Island, 1908
Photo courtesy of Indiana State Library

The first American Open Air School was built in Providence, Rhode Island in 1908, followed quickly by one in New York City. The treatment and results in both schools were identical to Berlin’s. Now, the idea had grown to also include children who were frail from malnutrition and other physical defects.

School districts across the US swiftly adopted the concept. By 1914,
there were 60 Open Air Schools in
32 different states, with an enrollment of 1,500 students. However, there were 1 million tuberculous children in the country.

“Most of us accept the fact that strength, vitality and the power of resistance to disease are gained by life in the open air. But, the rapid growth of our economic and industrial system has forced people to work in factories and to live huddled together in tenements where there is little or no fresh air to be found. Its benefits are forgotten or disregarded. Children suffer more from lack of pure air than do grown-ups.” — Mrs. Avis Burke, Indiana University, March 1922

At the time of the above quote in the early 20th century, 50% of children living under these adverse conditions became infected with tuberculosis before they were five years old. Fifty percent! Tuberculosis was the leading cause of death in the United States. Lack of fresh air was thought to be a source for this cruel disease, and it was most prevalent in crowded districts and homes of the poor. It was estimated that 12,000 US children of school age died annually from tuberculosis.

After World War I, the Open Air School Movement became more organized with international bureaus and summit meetings. The educational experience in the Open Air Schools included much physical exercise, regular medical checkups, a closely monitored diet and a focus on hygiene. The movement also influenced architecture.


In keeping with Newark’s position as New Jersey’s largest, and most innovative, public school district, the Boylan Street School in Newark opened its doors on September 8, 1930 as the State’s first Open Air School. It was designed exclusively for local children who had tuberculosis, or who were at high risk of contracting the disease, and incorporated the flow of fresh air throughout the building. For example, the majority of the second floor contained windows without glass (but, possibly with screens) to allow for constant air flow.

Boylan Street School, Newark, NJ, 2004
Photo courtesy of Richard Grubb & Associates

Boylan Street School (detail)
Newark, NJ, 2004
Photo courtesy of Richard Grubb
& Associates

The new facility was creatively designed by the local firm, Simpson & Rolston – John T. Simpson and Brown Rolston. It was unusual among other Newark public schools for its Art Moderne styling, and its purposely specialized architecture that combined sanatorium-style medical treatment and academic studies. The school façade has horizontal bands of huge windows with rounded edges on two projecting bays, along with decorative mosaics and two statues of seated children reading atop flanking columns. It is constructed of red brick with terra cotta and limestone detailing.

"Open Air School 1929" Gate, Boylan Street School, Newark, NJ, 2004
Photo courtesy of Richard Grubb
& Associates

Students were welcomed to school daily by crossing a wide lawn and passing under a wrought iron gate that reads, “Open Air School 1929.” Symbolism on the building was also specifically designed for the children. Large, tiled decorative sun motifs above the front door and windows was intended to cheer the particularly fragile students. The theme extended into the building’s interior where the original ceiling lights projected a sun-like pattern.

Left: Boylan Street School Sun Mosaic Entry, Newark, NJ, 2004
Right: Boylan Street School Sun Mosaic above Windows, Newark, NJ, 2004
Photos courtesy of Richard Grubb & Associates

Façades were designed to maximize natural light and fresh air. The second floor corridor incorporated south-facing skylights. The entire western half of the second floor was a covered porch large enough to contain 100 cots where students took daily outdoor rests. All standard windows opened widely, and contained “helio glass” which was thought to allow in beneficial types of light rays normally filtered out by regular glass.

Medical treatment for the students occurred in a heliotherapy room which was situated in the basement. Six ultraviolet quartz lamps were administered on cloudy days by the doctor’s individualized prescription for each child.

The school auditorium also contains Art Moderne features on the stage surround that include abstract columns with vertical fluting. The room retains its 120 historic wooden seats with linear decorative arches on each row’s metal endcaps.

Boylan Street School Auditorium, Newark, NJ, 2004
Photos courtesy of Richard Grubb & Associates

Landscaping on the open school grounds was designed to facilitate healthy activity and create uplifting views – considered an integral part of tuberculosis treatment. A playground and ample lawns for games surrounded the school. In 1936, the addition of a large public swimming pool, a wading pool and two pool houses helped create a complex intended for use by all neighborhood residents.

Ideas for a special Newark school for children with lung problems actually began in 1910. An 18th century schoolhouse on Chancellor Avenue was adapted as an open air school for those with “tubercular tendencies,” with a capacity of 48 students. Classes were held on open porches and in specially ventilated rooms. In the winter, students were kept warm outdoors by blankets, sleeping bags and heated soapstones. Students attended until they were healthy enough to return to regular schools – usually between six months to three years. The increasing number of students, and the increasing specialization of tuberculosis treatments resulted in the Chancellor Street facilities becoming insufficient.

“A happy, cheerful spirit is the result of work and play in the open air.”
— Jeanette Williams, Principal of Theodore Potter Open Air School
Indianapolis, Indiana

The modern architectural design chosen for the new Boylan Street School in 1928 was a significant departure from the revival styles, especially classical revival, in which most of Newark’s earlier schools had been constructed. Contemporary newspaper accounts describe the school as being in the modern Dutch style. The reference is to the De Stijl Movement, a group of artists, architects and craftsmen active in the Netherlands from 1917-1932. Perhaps the design of the Boylan Street School was also influenced by Johannes Duiker and Bernard Bijvoet’s Open Air School in Amsterdam, which was completed in 1928.

Left: Boylan Street School Deco Lighting Fixture, Newark, NJ, 2004
Right: Boylan Street School Stairwell, Newark, NJ, 2004
Photos courtesy of Richard Grubb & Associates

From today’s historic preservation perspective, the Boylan Street School is eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places under Criteria A – Event, and Criteria C – Design/Construction. The property is clearly representative of a specific event in Newark Public School history with its construction and design to specifically continue the education of infirm children in the city. The brick building is also a well-preserved example of Art Moderne architecture – now a rare sight in the City of Newark.


Boylan Street School’s architecture facilitated a specialized routine and schedule for 100 students and staff. Medical professionals and the head teacher ensured the students received three meals daily and sufficient clothes. The facility was also praised for having an exceptionally well-equipped kitchen. A local newspaper wrote, “… everything is there for the preparation of healthful foods without the loss of any nutriment. Mechanical devises (sic) peel potatoes, beat eggs or mash potatoes, eliminating the need for hands to touch the food.”

New York Open Air School 1910
Photo credit: Jacob Riis

Students arrived at 8:45am for a breakfast that included cereal, fruit, peanut butter, bread, milk and jam. Lunch was served at noon. At 2pm, students slept on their cots for one hour, and at 3pm were given a snack of crackers and milk – thought to be appropriate for the sick and elderly.

Accurate Weighing of Students
Photo courtesy of US Dept. of Interior

In addition to their standard academic studies, they participated in special gymnastic exercises and received frequent examinations by the school doctor. Weight gain was considered one of the primary gauges of health improvement.

When possible, lessons were conducted not just in open-air classrooms, but outdoors, as well. Desks and chairs were portable, so the children could form rows on the lawn or under trees. One woman who attended an open air school in England recalls sitting in class watching a green woodpecker on a nearby tree, and credits the experience with her lifelong enthusiasm for birds.

Left to Right: Child in Eskimo Suit, Photo courtesy of Indiana State Library;
Lumbermen’s Boots, Sitting Out Bag (NY), Photos courtesy of US Dept. of Interior

Various devices were used in Open Air Schools to protect children from winter cold. Many schools used the Eskimo suit, originated by a school in Chicago, and sold at the grand department store, Marshall Fields. It consisted of a loose, hooded coat, trousers and lumberman boots, permitting great freedom of movement. Others used the sitting bag – a canvas bag shaped to fit the chair and lined with a thick blanket. It was tied to the chair and straps over the student’s shoulders held up the back and front around the child. Another type could be used as a sitting or sleeping bag. It was fitted with a hood and an extra piece at the bottom that buttoned up over the feet. In addition, there were “chasing shoes” made of sheepskin with the fleece on the inside. All of these supplemented the child’s own winter garments, coat, sweater, mittens and hat.

Theodore Potter Open Air School, 1924
Photo courtesy of Indiana State Library

“It is fun to study in the open air when one is warm and comfortable.”
— FC Huyck & Sons, Albany, NY

“Children thrive in the fresh air and sunshine of winter, just as they do in the fresh air and sunshine of summer.”
— Miss Naomi Blosser, Public Health Nurse, Goshen, Indiana


The health improvement for Open Air School students was continuously quite good. The state of Indiana had an excellent program, and they speak well of their successes.

“From 75% - 90% of such children attending open air schools show improvement. The regular routine, with fresh air and nourishing food, brings about in the pupils an almost immediate visible result. The eyes brighten, the step becomes elastic, headaches disappear, studies and play are entered into with more vigor, and the whole mental and physical tone is raised. Gain is made in weight – from ¼ - ½ pound each week. The blood gains in hemoglobin; and teachers say that ‘snuffling’ disappears, the children have few colds, and never does a contagious disease ‘go thru a room’.” — Mrs. Avis Burke, Indiana University, March 1922 .

In addition, they cite the influences an open air school extends to the children’s home life. Parents come to realize their duty is not merely getting their child up in time for school, but that their food must be nourishing and given at regular intervals, their clothing kept clean, and adequate sleep provided. As stated in a 1922 Indiana report on Open Air Schools, “One of the most important parts of the work may be called the ‘education of the parent’.”

In this matter, the school nurse and teacher often played an important role, by visiting the students’ homes to remind parents of helpful practices regarding nutrition, hygiene and fresh air. In addition, a school Mothers’ Club was typically formed, whose regular meetings often included a program on important topics – a specific health problem, ventilation of the home, care and diseases of young children, dental care, etc.

Parental Consent Card from Boylan Street School
Photo courtesy of US Dept. of Interior


The medical specialty of the Boylan Street School continued, but its mission gradually evolved as scientific understanding of tuberculosis and other lung disease advanced. In 1936, the school replaced the six original quartz lamps in the basement with what the New York Times described as, “… one of the largest ultraviolet-ray group lamps ever to be installed in a public school … so big it gives even distribution of light over 16 children lying on cots, and floods a room 25’ square with its rays.”

Left: Open Air Cot, Photo courtesy of US Dept. of Interior
Right: Boylan Street School Vintage Wheelchair, Newark, NJ, 2004
Photo courtesy of Richard Grubb & Associates

In 1943, the discovery of streptomycin by New Jersey doctors, Albert Schatz and Selman Waksman thankfully eliminated the need for specialized tuberculosis treatments for large numbers of children. Subsequently, the mission of the school expanded to help anemic and undernourished students. In 1944, it had almost completely shifted to helping children who were considered generally “under-vitalized.”

The Open Air Movement faded away in the 1950s-60s. Tuberculosis retreated; slums were cleared to some extent; and air pollution legislation was introduced, first in 1955 with the Air Pollution Control Act, followed by the Clean Air Act of 1963. All of these did much to improve the lives of children.

The Boylan Street School was eventually used for special education classes. In 1997, it became an early childhood center for pre-kindergarten and first grade.

As for the fresh air treatment, which was the foundation for the Open Air School Movement, the modern view is that it was largely a side issue. There must have been a benefit in simply removing children from environments rich in germs, and once they were in clean, well-kept schools it didn’t much matter if they were taught indoors or outdoors. The weight gain and other improvements were surely due to the plentiful supply of food, exercise and the medical care and attention of teachers and staff.

Student in Eskimo Coat
Photo courtesy of US Department of Interior

But, the fact remains that Open Air Schools, including Boylan Street, helped thousands of early 20th century children across the world to literally survive and thrive. It is truly a success story.

“The classes were small and the teachers were caring. And, when you think of the homes that many of the children came from, it was often a wonderful change.” — Frances Wilmot, student, Open Air School, Uffculme, England

Additional Sources: “Boylan Street School Property Report,” NJ Historic Preservation Office, June 2004; Open Air Schools, Mrs. Avis Tarrant Burke, Public Welfare Service, Indiana University, March 1922; “Open Air Schools in Indiana,” Indiana State Library; “Open Air School Movement,” Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society, 2008; “Open Air School,” Wikipedia, 2014; “The Fresh Air School,” Louise Pettus, ancestry.com; “School’s Out,” independent.co.uk, January 2005; A History of Inventing in New Jersey, Barth, Linda, The History Press, 2013.

Boylan Street School Sun Mosaic Entry, Newark, NJ, 2004
Photo courtesy of Richard Grubb & Associates


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