Places that Matter

Manhattan Village Academy

School designed by architect Beverly Willis
Place Details »

Place Matters Profile

The Manhattan Village Academy was a collaboration pioneered by three leading women pushing for social change. Educators Deborah Meier and Mary Butz, and architect Beverly Willis believed in the power of well-designed, small schools to inspire inner-city students to great achievements. The school has been successfully in operation for almost 20 years. 

The Manhattan Village Academy is a small, public high school located inside a former warehouse tower building in on West 22nd Street in Chelsea.  The historic Art Deco building was constructed in 1906, and the bottom three floors of the commercial loft building were converted from office spaces to a school in 1996. At the time of the renovation, Deborah Meier was director of the Center for Collaborative Education. She pioneered the small schools movement and hired Mary Butz to become the principal of the Manhattan Village Academy. 

In 1994, the Board of Education drafted the original renovation drawings for the school, however the design failed to meet the demands necessary for a small school.  The former warehouse on West 22nd Street was well suited to adaptive reuse but required an imaginative design. Butz turned to renowned architect Beverly Willis to renovate the spaces pro-bono. Willis became the first outside architect to design and renovate leased space for a New York City public school.  
 
Through architectural design, Willis created a community environment. Long site lines allow for a continuous connection between students, teachers and administrators. There are few corridors, and where they could not be avoided, there are interior windows looking into the common areas like the library or computer rooms. This sense of having multidirectional “eyes” everywhere allows for mutual respect between students and teachers. The teacher’s lounge, which is across from the student’s cafeteria, has windows lining the hallway. So while students can always be seen, so can their instructors. This is not meant to be an authoritarian view. 
 
The ninth and tenth grades are located on one floor and eleventh and twelfth on the next. Each grade makes up a quad, which consists of three or four connected classrooms in an L-shape grouped around an open space. A large, semicircular wooden bench that teachers can see from the classroom binds the open space. Here students can work on group projects during class and the instructor can easily see what they are doing. The wooden benches are a place for students to read, socialize between classes, and get together for a grade-wide meeting. 
 
Sources:
 
- Andrea Moed. “Class Concious.” Interiors Magazine. 62-63. May 1999. 
 

- Beverly Willis Architectural Collection, 1954-1999. Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Blacksburg, Va. 2003

- “Change and Activism Needed in Architecture.” ACSA News. May 2007. 

- Glenn Thrush. “One Size Fits None.” Metropolis Magazine. 57. September 1994.

- Landmarks Preservation Commission. Designation List 294. June 16, 1998.