Old School, New Traditions at the Collegiate School

Read Time: 5 minutes

The Collegiate School in New York City traces its roots back to 1628, so when it came time for the K-12 boy’s day school to move into a new and modern building, they enlisted the help of Alexander Isley Inc (New York) to help preserve the past and design future traditions.

It doesn’t happen every day that a client leaves an experiential graphic design project open-ended save for one very specific instruction: No supergraphics. The Collegiate School in Manhattan is no ordinary client.

Collegiate is a private K-12 boy’s day school that traces its roots back to 1628, when it was founded by Dutch traders, making it the oldest independent school in the United States. The school currently instructs 660 students in a brand-new building on Freedom Place South, but from 1892 until recently, had been located one mile north on West 78th Street.

Because the antique and cramped labyrinthine space was well-loved, it exuded a certain appeal; The interior decor had evolved over decades, conveying the personality of the institution and its students in surprising ways around every sharp corner. The school leadership wanted to find a way to retain the spirit and tradition of the old school as they moved into a starkly modern space—without creating a museum-like atmosphere.

The new building designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox Assoc. PC and Studios Architecture is comprised of 11 floors and 180,000 square feet. To address the concerns of many that the new building—while envisioned to be contemporary in look, spacious and technologically advanced—might not be “Collegiate” enough, Alexander Isley Inc were asked to develop a placemaking program (sans supergraphics) that would infuse the character and tradition of the “old” school into what would be the new and future Collegiate campus.

The Alexander Isley team came on to the project less than 10 months before the move-in date, while construction was underway and quickly began defining the scope and tenor of their work with a series of input sessions with faculty, administrators, staff and students. They led general discussions regarding the nature of the institution’s traditions, the importance of artifacts, what creates a space and ways in which they might honor the past while leaving open room for future growth.

“We decided that our challenge would not be to attempt to replicate history, but instead to establish a foundation on to which new traditions could start to build over time,” says Alexander Isley, founder and principal of the firm. “The idea of surprise—of turning a corner to find something unexpected—helped us formulate our plan to develop a series of thoughtful, sometimes subtle and sometimes quirky installations.”

As part of the program, the faculty created a questionnaire to help each class year select an item or artifact to bring over to the new building. Part of the Isley team’s task was to figure out how and where to install the items chosen, including a basketball rim, a ceiling tile filled with pencils and a wood panel inscribed with generations of students’ names, in addition to some objects that were more obvious choices like an autographed portrait of Winston Churchill and the clock from the library. One of the most sentimental parts of the old school was a stone staircase, worn down from use by upperclassmen: Walking up those stairs for the first time was an important rite of passage for Collegiate students.

Collegiate’s architectural committee was the client group for the project and was composed of the headmaster, faculty members and parents (who are architects and designers). The Alexander Isley team went through several rounds of presentations and approvals—ensuring that every step of the way there was a cohesive, communicated plan in coordination with the architectural vision for the space. Isley says the process unfolded organically and was enjoyable.

The Isley team also worked in parallel with ADA signage designer Peter Scherer of H Plus Inc., whose scope was exclusive of directional wayfinding. The wayfinding system uses the school’s brilliant orange, wrapping the corners of corridors in a gesture that references the old building’s blind corners.

One of the most challenging aspects of the project was removing embedded relics from the old building. Oversized marble plaques that had been sealed to stone walls had to be removed, preserved and relocated. A fragile jump circle from a basketball court had to be cut out and restored. A centuries-old millstone that had been embedded in an outdoor brick wall needed to be extracted.

The beloved staircase could not be removed or repurposed, but Isley came up with a solution: disassemble the stairs and embed a strip of the material into the concrete floor of the lobby of the new building, echoing the idea of crossing a threshold. Despite the concrete having already been poured, the client group loved the idea so much, they had no problem making the change.

Another big consideration in the execution of the project, choice of materials and presentation of artifacts was durability. Signage needed to be removable for frequent painting and delicate objects needed to be out of the way of swinging backpacks: photographs spanning from the 1880s were cleverly mounted overhead at an angle out of harm’s way activating otherwise unused space and a special chair was sealed into a cubby with lucite.

The program was enthusiastically embraced by students, staff and parents, serving as a cultural bridge to the new structure. It was so successful, the Alexander Isley team has been asked to consult with the school, leading workshops with the students to plan new art installations and establish a framework for the development of new student-generated traditions.

Isley describes this new and exciting phase aptly: “I think having an awareness of history and tradition are important, but just as important is conveying the ideas of imagination and possibility and the value of embracing the unexpected; I consider this a celebration of the future not the past.”


Project Name: Collegiate School Environmental Design and Wayfinding Program
Client: Collegiate School
Location: New York
Open Date: January 2018
Project Area: 180,000 sq ft
Architects: Kohn Pedersen Fox Assoc. PC (architect of record), Studios Architecture (design architect)
EGD Design/Wayfinding: Alexander Isley Inc.
Fabrication: ARTfx
Collaborators: Mathusek Corporation (Gym floor jump circle removal and restoration), Sciame Construction (Contractor)
Photography: HollenderX2, Chris Taggart, Alexander Isley