Friday, April 8, 2016

Architect Spotlight: Ernest Crimi

By Matthew Shoen

Our first Architect Spotlight featured Samuel D. P. Williams of the firm Williams and Johnson in Ogdensburg, New York.  This week I wanted to come back to Buffalo and chronicle an unknown builder of the city’s public education system. That builder is Ernest Crimi who, in the 1920s, was responsible for building at least sixteen public elementary schools in Buffalo, as well as a few high schools.[1] Crimi’s labors reflect an interesting story of school construction in Buffalo, additionally his appointment in 1924 as the head architect of the Buffalo School District's architecture division is more broadly interesting for its intersection with the Associated Buffalo Architects a group of some of Buffalo’s most famous architects.

The 1910s and 1920s were a period of intense growth for Buffalo and the city found itself struggling to cope with the needs of so many new students. Buffalo's education infrastructure needed to rapidly expand. Between 1921 and 1930 the city commissioned twenty-four new school buildings and twenty-six additions to existing school structures.[2] In 1925 alone, twelve schools were in the process of being built with four more in the planning process.  Over $8,607,000 in work was scheduled for the years 1928 and 1929.[3] Many of the designs were completed by Ernest Crimi whose work truly exemplifies the tenants of standardized school design.

Prior to the 20s school design was treated like the design of a major civic building. Architects worked to craft suitably monumental structures to impress the value of education on students and parents, many of whom had never been exposed to normalized schooling in their home countries. The school was supposed to be a house of learning and impress the importance of education on students in the same way that the monumental architecture of a church impressed the power and spirit of God on parishioners. This mindset lasted for about a decade. By 1924 when Crimi started working for the Buffalo School District, design standards had been completely formalized and much of the monumental architecture and individualized energy formerly dedicated to school design was gone, replaced by a more formulaic approach adopted to maximize efficiency in school construction.

Though Crimi built over a dozen schools in Buffalo it’s reasonable to say that he really only built a few individual buildings. The majority of Crimi’s buildings are identical to each other both inside and out. In fact PS 77, 78, and 79 are copies of PS 76 on Elmwood and Tracy.  Crimi designed his schools to be easily replicated and quickly built. Many of his buildings follow an H pattern with a hollow interior courtyard, popular in the 20s and 30s. Classrooms were organized along the outside of the building to provide maximum light for the students and the schools featured gymnasium and auditorium spaces. Some of these features, namely the gym and auditorium, were mandated by state law, while the classroom layouts were done according to scientific precepts which saw natural light as critical to the protection of a child’s eyesight.

Though his architecture lacked in terms of innovation and beauty, the story of how Ernest Crimi became Buffalo’s most prolific school builder is excellent. In 1919, at the start of Buffalo’s school building campaign, a group of Buffalo architects formed the Associated Buffalo Architects. This was the Justice League of Buffalo architects  and counted many of the city’s heavy hitters on its roster.  E.B. Green, Duane Lyman, and Max Beirel all were members, and together they parsed out contracts from the Buffalo School District to build schools. The relationship was a steady and successful one until 1924 when an inspector discovered the concrete of PS 68’s foundation was severely compromised. The school, not yet finished, was immediately demolished and the school district cancelled its contracts with the Associated Buffalo Architects. Within two months they had created their own architecture bureau and appointed Ernest Crimi as its head.

The falling out between Buffalo and the ABA highlights the changing role of architects in school design and construction. Prior to the 20s the prospect of having so many noteworthy architects working on school buildings would have been a major boon to the district. However, by the time the ABA had its contract cancelled, school construction was no longer an art. Instead it was a repetitious task that required little effort as evidenced by Crimi’s ability to stamp down sixteen elementary schools in six years all across the city. As an architect Crimi had limited creative input, he became more akin to a manager and foreman, making sure the needs of the district were met and that the concrete wasn’t shoddy. Despite this his work is still some of the most important in Buffalo. Though he didn't design grand monumental schools, Crimi created the spaces thousands of Buffalo children would be educated within. Chances are if you went to school in Buffalo you spent at least some time in one of his buildings. Looking through the list in the footnotes just below. Is the school you attended a Crimi school?

School 77, Image Taken from

[1] Crimi’s work includes PS’s 6, 17, 28, 39, 53, 67, 71, 72, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 80, 81, Burgard Vocational High School and Emerson Vocational High School.
[2] Younkin and Rex, NRHP Public School #60, 13-14; Paul McDonnell,School Reconstruction – Buffalo’s Largest Historic Preservation Project. Ever." Buffalo Rising, June 27, 2012.
[3] “$8,607,000 School Work Scheduled,” The Buffalo Evening News, January 6, 1928,

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