Places that Matter

Morris Campus

Photo courtesy NYC Department of Records
Photo courtesy NYC Department of Records
Bronx high school that fed creative culture
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Written by Jennifer Rajotte for Place Matters

Academic institutions are often physical and social pillars of a community, where young minds are developed and the next generations of leaders are formed. In the Bronx, the Morris School Campus seemingly reflects its hallowed mission through its exquisite Gothic Revival architecture. Where better to instill youth—and a community—with the promise of the future than a grand building, standing collegiate and proud for over a century?

Founded in 1897 as Peter Cooper High, it was the first high school built in the Bronx and one of the original New York City Public High Schools. The campus was designed by C.B.J. Snyder, a leader in school architectural transformation who served as Superintendent of School Buildings during its construction. To Snyder, a school building was more than just a building that housed a school: it was a civic monument, meant to reflect the aspirations of society and offer respite from the crowded, noisy world of the City.
 
The building was finished in 1904, complete with an elaborate auditorium equipped with steel-ribbed vaults within Tudor arches, a grand pipe organ, and stained glass windows. Later, magnificent murals decorated the walls, including the well-known 1926 World War I memorial, After Conflict Comes Peace, by the celebrated French artist August Gorguet.
 
Could they have known, in these early days, how this beautiful performance space would stand central to a pivotal cultural corridor—the celebrated jazz mecca of Boston Road in the Bronx, dotted with clubs and show halls played nightly by greats such as Thelonious Monk and Elmo and Bertha Hope, and a hot bed of doo wop that exploded onto the national scene with surprising force?
 
The school was eventually renamed Morris High School, in honor of Bronxite Gouverneur Morris, a signer of the Articles of Confederation who is widely considered the primary author of the preamble of the Constitution. Residents at the time pushed for their local school to bear the name of a local hero with national impact, battling the school board with gusto in favor of the renaming. It seems appropriate, then, that the likes of United States Secretary of State Colin Powell and United States Attorney Benito Romano attended Morris High, and it is little surprise that even today, Carmen Bardeguez-Brown, principal of the School for Excellence now housed on campus, considers Morris School Campus, “at the vanguard of what public education should be for those searching for the American Dream.”
 
Jesús Papoleto Meléndez, a Nuyorican poet who attended Morris High and now gives poetry workshops to students there, remembers his time at Morris as developmental in his art and activism. “Back in those days, I hung out with a crowd of students that was quite Radical, in a political sense of awareness, and that took it upon [ourselves] to be proactive in matters of social concern, which, at that time were the Vietnam war; establishing the 18-year-old vote amendment (ultimately becoming law); the elimination of the armed forces draft; and the civil rights movement.”
 
But perhaps even more than for nurturing future world leaders and activists, Morris High School matters as a long-time music and cultural haven for students over the years, spawning countless groups who formed there, including the Chords with their hit “Sh-boom” (commonly known as “Life Could Be a Dream”), particularly during the doo-wop era. The success of African-American music groups in achieving notoriety from their modest beginnings at Morris High continued to feed a creative culture for which the Bronx came to be known. In 1982, the auditorium was designated as an historic landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
 
Today, the building is known as Morris Campus and houses four schools: Morris Collaborative; Bronx International; School For Excellence; and High School For Violin and Dance. While much of the Bronx has changed over the last century, Morris still stands, and within it the students of the future and an auditorium preserved and as grand as ever.