Abandoned, Overgrown, Schools

Inside Harlem’s P.S. 186

Dawn breaks in a crumbling classroom.

School’s out forever; at least at P.S. 186.  This aging beauty has loomed over West Harlem’s 145th Street for 111 years—but it’s been vacant exactly a third of that time.  The Italian Renaissance structure was considered dilapidated when it shuttered 37 years ago, and today its interiors feel more sepulchral than scholastic.

Nature reclaims the school’s top floor.

Windows gape on four of its five stories, exposing classrooms to a barrage of elements.  Spongy wood flooring, wafer-thin in spots, supports a profusion of weeds.  Adolescent saplings reach upward through skylights and arch through windows.  They’re stripped of their foliage on this unseasonably warm February morning, lending an atmosphere of melancholy to an already gloomy interior.  Infused with an odor not unlike an antiquarian book collection, upper floors harbor a population of hundreds of mummified pigeon carcasses—the overall effect is grim.  You’d never guess this building had an owner, but sure enough…

The site was purchased in 1986 by the nonprofit Boys and Girls Club of Harlem for $215,000 under the condition that new development would be completed within three years.  After several decades of inactivity, the group introduced a redevelopment plan that called for the demolition of P.S. 186 and the construction of a 200,000 sq. ft. mixed-use facility with affordable housing, commercial and community space, and a new public school…

News of the school’s demolition mobilized area residents to save the structure.  A series of local petitions and letter-writing campaigns championed the preservation of P.S. 186, and gained the support of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, though a landmark bid was blocked at a 2010 community board meeting.  At the time, owners insisted that rehabilitating the decrepit building was a financial impossibility.

In a surprising turn of events, the BGCH recently downsized the plan in favor of preservation.  The school will be renovated into 90 units of affordable housing and a new Boys and Girls Club.

It’s a rare victory for preservationists, and an unlikely one given the school’s history—when the building was last in use, community members wanted nothing more than to see the place razed.

From the New York Times Archives, NEGRO officials take over P.S. 186.

In addition to generally run-down conditions, safety became a major concern at P.S. 186 in its final years.  The H-shaped design allegedly had the potential to trap “hundreds of children and teachers” in the event of a fire.  Doors on the bottom floor were to remain open at all times to keep the outdated floor plan up to code, leaving the building completely vulnerable to neighborhood crime.

According to the school’s principal at the time, “parents have been robbed in here at knife point, and people…use this building as a through-way.”  In a 1972 incident, two youths, including the 17-year-old brother of a 5-year-old P.S. 186 student, broke into room 407 and raped a teacher’s aide at gunpoint.

Increasing community concern reached a boiling point earlier that year when 60 members of the African American empowerment group NEGRO (National Economic Growth and Reconstruction Organization) moved into the school to call for an evacuation of 600 students on the top three floors.

The stunt caught the attention of the Fire Department, who toured the school later that week.  A deputy chief “didn’t see any real hazardous problem,” but was forced to evacuate the remaining 900 students when he was unable to activate the fire alarm.  Inspectors discovered that wires leading out of the alarm system had been cut, although a school custodian claimed that the alarm system had worked during a routine test at 7:30 that morning.

By 1975, funding was at last approved for a replacement school, and much to the relief of parents, plans were put in place for the immediate demolition of the aging fire trap.  Who could predict that thirty-seven years later P.S. 186 would be getting a second chance?

Inside PS 186

The ground floor.

A few decades ago, this school was described as “antiquated,” “unsafe,” and “plain,” but today, it’s called “historic,” “magnificent,” and “beautifully designed.”  This reversal illustrates the complex relationship we New Yorkers have with our buildings, and begs the question: what might the the thousands of old structures we see torn down every year have meant to us in a century?

It’s been a few months since I’ve set foot in the building, and today the visit feels like a half-remembered dream.

To keep vagrants out, cinderblocks had been installed in almost every window and door of the bottom floor.  It looked too dark to shoot—but as my eyes started to adjust, I saw that light was finding its way in.  Through every masonry crack and plaster aperture, bands of color projected onto decaying classrooms, vibrant variations on a pinhole camera effect.  Past a vault inexplicably filled with tree limbs, a hall of camera obscuras each hosting an optical phenomenon more bewitching than the last.  P.S. 186 is largely considered an eyesore in its current state, but who could deny that its interior is a thing of beauty?

However photogenic, this decay does little good for its underserved community—it’s the sort of oddity this city doesn’t have room for.  Here’s a look inside, before we turn the page on what’s destined to be the most colorful chapter in the controversial, and continuing, history of this unofficial Harlem landmark.

-Will Ellis

Inside PS 186

Decaying seats in the auditorium.

Inside PS 186

The view from center stage.

Inside PS 186

Behind flaking slate chalkboards, pencilled measurements dating to their original installation in the early 1900s.

Inside PS 186

Buckling floors in this classroom were in relatively good condition.

Inside PS 186

…Some areas of the top floor nurtured a fledgling arboretum.

Inside PS 186

The damaging effects of water put on display in a weedy gymnasium.

Inside PS 186

An exit still clearly marked.

Inside PS 186

One of hundreds of pigeon carcasses found throughout the building.

Inside PS 186

From the entrance.

View of the east wing.

Inside PS 186

A ravaged classroom on the top floor..

Inside PS 186

…and an identical room 5 stories down.

Inside PS 186

Ominous light on the bottom floor of P.S. 186.

Inside PS 186

A certain slant of light gives this room the look of an unholy nativity.

Inside PS 186

Rubble collects on the ground floor.

Inside PS 186

Blue skies reflect three stories down onto a grand staircase littered with debris.

Inside PS 186

A Rainbow in Harlem.




46 thoughts on “Inside Harlem’s P.S. 186

  1. Wow!! Great pictures and story.


    Posted by Robert Ellis | 7-8-12., 12:38 pm
  2. Great photos! Would you mind if we shared this on the Hamilton Heights Facebook page? http://www.facebook.com/HamiltonHeights Thanks!


    Posted by kate | 7-9-12., 2:48 pm
    • Please do! I’m especially eager to share this with those in the affected community, would love to hear any memories of the school or opinions about what’s being done with the place.


      Posted by abandonednyc | 7-9-12., 6:43 pm
      • I would like to know, does this space still exist or has it been renovated or demolished. I would also like to use these photos in a music video, Would you grant me permission and if so please email them to me?


        Posted by Mary | 5-25-14., 12:07 am
  3. This article is great. Your entire site is amazing. Thank you for sharing!


    Posted by Leisa | 7-9-12., 2:58 pm
  4. The pictures are beautiful, I do hope they attempt to maintain all if not most of the original details in the restoration process. That staircase is just to wonderful to be thrown away! Excellent job!


    Posted by David FH McEniry | 7-10-12., 12:09 pm
  5. wow, this is so interesting… amazing photos.


    Posted by justcooknyc | 7-10-12., 1:46 pm
  6. amazing photos. I’m a photographer myself, would i need to contact someone to get permission to go in and take photos, or would i be able to walk in?


    Posted by Omar Khan (@omarkhan80) | 7-11-12., 10:24 am
  7. Amazing photos! I too wonder if you are allowed to go by and take a peak or if special permission is required. Also, im travelling from Los Angeles and plan to see Dead Horse Bay. Are there other spots like that I can find out about. Abandoned sites fascinate me so much!


    Posted by Debra | 7-15-12., 12:42 pm
  8. These pictures are wonderful. I went to first grade at PS 186 in 1968. I recall lining up in the courtyard in the mornings and the booming sound of kids gathered on the first floor. Inside the school was huge, and being a kind of goofy kid I was constantly getting lost and walking down the long halls and strange hallways. My godmother went there in the 1940s and said it was a great school, but by the late ’60s, PS 186 was rough and I was sometimes bullied. At the urging of my teacher, mom sent me to private school the following year. Still, having grown-up in the neighborhood, the building has long amazed me, especially in its declining years. Hope you post more pictures soon.


    Posted by Michael A. Gonzales | 9-24-12., 9:37 am
  9. These pictures of P.S. 186 in Harlem are phenomenal! We never knew the back story of the old abandoned building, but you obviously went digging for some quality details. If the structure weren’t so unsafe, this would make a great historical tour or something of that nature. It will be interesting to see what becomes of the new development.


    Posted by Sovereign Associates | 10-4-12., 5:17 pm
  10. You inspire me all the time. I got caught at Grossinger’s yesterday and asked to leave. I am amazed at the places you get into! Letchworth is a regular stop as I live close by. I’d love to go with you on an adventure anytime!


    Posted by lorrainem | 4-14-13., 8:32 pm
    • Thanks so much Lorraine! Sorry to hear about your bad luck at Grossinger’s, I hope you at least got to see the swimming pool. Letchworth Village is such an unforgettable place, I camped at Harriman for a weekend and still wasn’t able to see the whole thing.


      Posted by abandonednyc | 4-15-13., 9:55 am
  11. WOW! Great images, nicely framed. I found myself walking through the halls as I viewed each image.

    I graduated from that elementary school in 1971. When I return home to my neighborhood, I am delighted to see the growth and change that occurred during the past few decades. However, I am sadden each time I walk around the entire block…from Broadway and 145th street, east to Amsterdam Ave, North to 146th, street, and south to Broadway…to see how this structure is the biggest eyesore in this part of Harlem.

    This structure (or what is left of it) needs to become a vibrant part of Sugar Hill again!

    I am media producer and I am considering producing a documentary on the history of that structure, the students, teachers and staff that were there during the late 60’s and seventies.

    Anyone interested in discussing this, send me an email to mike@dunbarwalkerproductions.com


    Posted by Michael Walker | 6-5-13., 12:14 pm
  12. Please make sure that this development is not given to HPD….I live in PS90 and although our building looks great from the outside their is construction defects by BFC&L&M Management. Sponsor is corrupt on so many levels.


    Posted by PS90 | 6-5-13., 12:18 pm
  13. I just got back from visiting the school. It was incredible. If you’re there, you should definitely check out the view from the roof! There’s a ladder in one of the arboritum-like rooms on the top floor. There are holes all over the roof but there’s a spot with two cinderblock and brick bench-type things someone made. A really peaceful end to a fabulous visit. And the book room’s amazing too–a small, closet like room full of all these old books from the school. Some were as old as from 1940.


    Posted by roryminelorMinelor | 6-6-13., 6:59 pm
    • Awesome, I plan on going very soon…was there any problems entering ?


      Posted by Kyle Wilson | 6-17-13., 3:07 pm
      • I actually found it very easy to enter. The door has a sign that says “Do Not Enter” or something to that effect, but it is wide open and leads straight to the courtyard, from which you can easily climb up a ladder that leads to one of the bottom windows. The only advice I have for you is that there are sometimes cops outside of the entrance, or security officers. Make sure to enter only when they are either gone or otherwise occupied. We had to wait a few hours before going in.

        Also make SURE you bring a really powerful flashlight. Many of the upper floors are well lit, but finding the stairs from the lobby is terrifying without proper light.


        Posted by roryminelor | 6-17-13., 3:57 pm
  14. How would you go about having this building restored in order to house mothers who are suffering from the disease of substance abuse and helping them to learn to deal with their children and how to live independently, or is that even possible. Since this would be considered a historical landmark.


    Posted by Jacquelyn Pope | 6-26-13., 5:33 pm
  15. Any chance you have been inside of thr abandoned public school building that has been scaffolded for the last 20 years @ 147th and the Grand Concourse in the Bronx? I love the photographs of PS 186. Thank you


    Posted by Sylvia | 7-2-13., 1:59 pm
  16. i to wonder if you could walk in and take photographs or if you have to ask someone for permission to do so


    Posted by Tafy | 8-11-13., 7:16 pm
  17. I am so glad that this building would be useful, beside what happened I wish this would it continued be school but hey theres soooo much people into shelter wish this workout for the I live in west 144street thank lord this bringing a new change walking by and seen there was nothing done was depressing but the lord hear every one prayer hopefully this affordable housing comes handy for those that needs it with bad credict or not that stills in a shelter for a mest up credict


    Posted by ruthy | 11-27-13., 3:00 am
  18. Also the holy pict shows a woman long hair with glasses in a typing machine no lie you clearly see it in the wall great pictures


    Posted by ruthy | 11-27-13., 3:02 am
  19. wow – I was a student here back in the 50s. makes me want to check out JHS43 where I went to Junior High.


    Posted by Jim | 1-17-14., 11:02 pm
  20. Hi! I am a freelance reporter wondering if I could possibly use some of your shots if I am unable to get in myself! Thanks!


    Posted by 101bots | 4-6-14., 2:20 pm
  21. How dangerous is it to go in there?


    Posted by machu22 | 4-7-14., 7:30 pm
  22. I went to this school from 1964-1967. The first (top) picture looks like my kindergarten classroom on the first floor.


    Posted by Eddy | 9-11-14., 5:17 pm
    • I taught in this school from 1970 until its closing when we move temporarily to a movie theater on Broadway and 146th street before moving into our new building on Amsterdam Ave between 146th and 147th named after Adam Clayton Powell – PS 153… I took many great photographs of the kids in the schoolyard at PS186.


      Posted by Jamie Breslau | 10-26-14., 8:59 am
  23. Appreciation to my father who told me concerning this blog, this weblog is really remarkable.


    Posted by Dwight | 11-18-14., 1:44 pm


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