What is definitely different is the building, a solid, elegant Cass Gilbert–designed 215,000-square-foot former grocery wholesale warehouse built in 1928, which was fitted out inside by Bonetti/Kozerski Studio, best known for its luxurious shops for Donna Karan and Tod’s. “Chris wanted someone who hadn’t designed a school before,” says Enrico Bonetti, but the architects were also inspired by a few schools they admired—Dalton, for its food service; Trinity, for the lobby.
We’re standing in a lower-school classroom, and Whittle points to a tyke-size swivel chair. “A lot of time went into this,” he says. “If you have children who like to move, then you don’t have to get up and run around. So these chairs help them use that up. There was a whole team who did nothing but furniture selection.”
He takes me up to the rooftop playground, then down to the arts-and-science floor, which has a glass-walled robotics lab right off the elevator bank (“We try to place interesting things where they can be seen”). Elsewhere, he points to the eyeball-stalk surveillance-style cameras that he says will allow the kids to teleconference with other continents. It was his idea that the classroom doors should open in the middle, not to the front or the back, to challenge the teacher-student hierarchy. Along the south side of several floors are what he describes as “soft-chair lounges for students” for reading and group work. He shows me the server room, which can service up to 5,000 devices (everyone gets an iPad), a little stage for the lower school to put on plays, the coffee-bar landing pad for helicopter parents off the lobby. The upper school “student commons” is a sunny, two-story space with vintage-looking leather sofas and “work stations”—each kid gets a dedicated cubicle, since Whittle thinks they should spend half the day out of the classroom working independently (a pedagogic notion he pursued in Crash Course as a way to save money). “They are in some way modern-day libraries,” Whittle says. Avenues—which Whittle wants to be ultimately paperless—does not have a central library.
In the entryway for the nursery school, the walls are covered in simple drawings of simple things—a shoe, a cat—by Maira Kalman. The top-floor gym features inspirational slogans on the walls that could be codas for everything Whittle has ever tried and tried again. Biggest is the phrase “You Miss 100 Percent of the Shots You Never Take.”
The week before the school opened, there were three nights of receptions for the parents. (And yes, September 4, Katie Holmes was there.) “We’re pumped, and we’re ready,” declared Skip Mattoon, the sixtysomething co-head of school, formerly of Hotchkiss. “We have a curriculum based on best practice. We have a soaring mission.” And a certain amount of nerdy jocularity. Gardner Dunnan (formerly of Dalton), the academic dean and head of the upper school said, “A recent letter I wrote to you, and some of you actually read, I addressed to ‘pioneer parents.’ And all parents are pioneers, but parents of the ninth-graders are really pioneers.” This year, freshmen are the oldest students to give the college-admissions machinery time to get going. The school opens at about half-capacity, with 725 students. He adds, “You are making a bet that we can deliver a superior upper-school curriculum. We are confident that we can do that, but you’ve been really courageous. We’ve been really cowardly. We were very, very selective in admitting ninth-graders, because we knew that they are going to define how this school is viewed over the next decade.”
Whittle got up, looked around at this finally opened department store of his dreams. “It shows what can happen in life and how workable life is,” he says.
Circulating with the cheese plates, I meet Susan Schuman, a handsomely coiffed woman in a black suit and pink sandals. She is the CEO of management-consulting firm SYPartners (according to its website, Schuman helps executives “define—and then attain—greatness for their companies”). She praises Avenues as a “start-up” that seeks to “disrupt.” I ask her if she worries they’ll cut corners to meet their profit margins. “I don’t know. The thing that gives me hope is their plan to diversify to other countries.” This, she says, will help “their business model.” “Even if they only do half of what they are saying they’re going to do, it’s still going to be great,” says Ilene Osherow, Schuman’s ebullient life partner.
As they wander off, I turn to James Wynn, who also works for SYPartners and lives in Brooklyn. “We really didn’t want to send our kids to school in Manhattan,” he says. “We went to this one open house, and there was a line around the block. We took one look and said, ‘This is absurd. This cannot be this important.’ ” Then Schuman told him about Avenues. “I like the fact that they are taking a risk and doing something different. They went out and raised all this money to make this private school, and they made a lot of choices that I would have made if I were starting the school. I’d build a building on the High Line. I’d hire the people they’ve hired.” He looks over to the marble-clad serving counter. “I like white marble in my kitchen too. I’d love to have my kitchen look like that. I like the decisions they’ve made. Why not? I’m game.”