Xavier High School has called 16th Street home since 1850, when New York City had only two boroughs, the Whig party still won mayoral elections, and the tallest buildings in the city were churches.
As New York, and the world writ large, changed around it, Xavier held steadfast to its spiritual—and physical—roots. Today, our school’s campus reflects 171 years of expansion and adaptation, all while never losing sight of our past and time-honored traditions. Xavier’s campus comprises six buildings; from one class to another, Xavier students cross between 19th-century Victorian architecture and 21st-century state-of-the-art facilities.
When John Larkin, S.J., then a professor of philosophy at Fordham University, traveled south from Rose Hill to found a new Jesuit church and school in Lower Manhattan in 1847, he overshot 16th Street and landed at Elizabeth and Walker Streets in what would become Manhattan’s Chinatown. After bouncing around downtown for its first three years, Xavier found its permanent home in 1850, when it moved into a new building at 49 West 15th Street (the main entrance, and thus address, would later switch to the 16th Street side). In 1851, construction on the original Church of St. Francis Xavier was completed.
A decade later, in 1862, as the Civil War tore the country in two, Xavier added an expansive, five-story building to its campus. The new building helped the school expand to 500 students for the first time, accommodating the influx of Roman Catholics in New York City—as well as Xavier’s growing reputation.
In the latter half of the 19th century, the city around Xavier grew tremendously. In the 1878, the sixth avenue “El”— the second to be built in Manhattan — opened with a station on 14th Street. Increased transportation, especially with the opening of the New York City subway in the decades after, permitted increased attendance from all over the city. The opening of the “El” also inaugurated what would become a time-honored Xavier tradition of commuting to school by train (and blaming the train for lateness).
As the turn of the century approached, Xavier purchased more land to expand its footprint. In 1882, a new, much larger and much grander Church of St. Francis Xavier was built on 16th Street, and the old church was soon demolished. On the footprint of the old church, a new two-story building was constructed, bringing much-needed facilities—and central heating—to the school. In 1888, the “New College Building” (today known as the Lynch Building) was built, bringing Xavier a needed expansion and its final address—30 West 16th street. The New College Building, finally completed in 1892, housed members of the Jesuit community, a two-story theater, a library, and offices.
The Xavier campus would remain as such through the early years of the 20th century. In 1925, new classrooms and a gymnasium were added on 15th Street (today part of the C Building), and in 1929, students raised $10,000 (equivalent to $160,000 today) towards the construction of a cafeteria adjoining the new gym, just as they had previously raised funds for a new reference library and debate rooms. The smooth, paved roof of the cafeteria structure would become the new Xavier quadrangle. In 1930, a new Student Chapel was added, and students even served as models for the painted angels on the chapel walls.
Through the 1930s, much of the school’s interior was remodeled, including the laying of tile still on the floor today. More significantly, science classrooms were modernized and lecture halls enlarged to accommodate the school’s growing enrollment, and concrete structures were added to connect Xavier’s growing patchwork campus. (And at one point in the late 1940s, the school planned on building a baseball field along Sixth Avenue.)
The next major bout of construction would take place in the 1960s, when Xavier’s facilities as we know them began to truly take shape. Starting in 1962, parts of the Old College Building—including the theater and Jesuit residence—were demolished to make room or a new building. The old quadrangle and cafeteria were demolished and replaced with their modern iterations.
Most importantly, a brand new mid-century modern building was in the works. The construction of the building, now known as the Kane Building, almost broke the school bank. At the time, there were no major cash reserves nor an endowment, so the school accumulated debt to finance construction.
The new building, designed by architect Joseph H Belfatto, opened for use in 1965. It gave Xavier its modern, street-level entrance and brought four new science laboratories, 23 new classrooms, new Jesuit living quarters, and, most excitingly, a new, expanded gymnasium with a capacity four times larger than its predecessor.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, two capital campaigns helped Xavier double its endowment and carry out major renovations to the physical plant. Two projects with lasting impacts on Xavier were the creation of a professional quality weight room and the reconstruction of the library and learning center on the second floor of the Kane Building, adapting the library for the coming century of digital technology.
In the 2000s, Xavier planned to sell the school’s air rights to Tishman Hotel & Realty LP for $20 million. When the Great Recession hit New York’s real estate market in 2008, however, the deal unraveled and the plan never materialized.
In 2010, however, just as America’s economy started to rebound from the Great Recession, Xavier struck a deal with Alchemy Properties, partnering in what The Wall Street Journal called an “an unusual real estate gambit.” Xavier sold its air rights to Alchemy. Moreover, the school would occupy six stories of Alchemy’s new luxury condominium tower, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to grow its campus in the densest place in America.
The result was Fernandez-Duminuco Hall, which opened in September 2016 and honors benefactor Mike Fernandez ’72 and former headmaster Vincent Duminuco, S.J. The addition of the wing expanded Xavier’s campus by more than 33,000 square feet, 2,000 tons of steel, six stories, 11 classrooms, four music practice rooms, six offices, one theater, two student lounges, one theater, one STEAM classroom, and—last, but not least—eight bathrooms.
As President Jack Raslowsky, who became Xavier’s first lay president in 2009, put it: “Fernandez-Duminuco Hall came from deliberateness—a willingness to be bold, to take good risks.” As is the story of Xavier, since 1847.