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Choir loft in the sky. St. Thomas boys' school has new, high-rise home

IF you need a quick indicator of Manhattan real estate values, you might be interested in the St. Thomas Choir School. It has just traded its old school site on West 55th for a much smaller piece of property on West 58th, in the cultural heart of the city, between Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. The trade included the construction on the new property of a 15-story, $18 million ``campus in a skyscraper.'' The Fisher brothers, the New York real estate developers who made the trade, were among many who made offers to St. Thomas Episcopal Church for the desirably zoned and underutilized school property.

``We were a midget among giants,'' says Gordon Clem, headmaster at St. Thomas, speaking about the old school building. ``People would come to visit the school, and they would look at our four stories, and they would look at the building across the street, which was more than 50, and would say, I don't think you're going to be here much longer. And a great number of folks came by wanting to buy the school building, to make a proposal for us.''

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Most of the offers were to build a new building on the existing site, giving the school the use of three or four floors. This would have meant relocating the school during construction. The Fishers anticipated that problem and purchased the new site with a trade in mind.

They also contracted the services of an architectural firm to develop plans for a school on the new site, allowing St. Thomas to continue operations throughout the construction.

Faculty, staff, and students moved into the new facility this fall, bringing with them a tradition dating back to 1919 when the school was founded by a British composer and organist, Dr. T.Tertius Noble, to provide a balanced education for the then newly established St. Thomas boys' choir. The school has survived the years to become the only church-choir boarding school in the United States, and one of the few in the world, ranking with the renowned Vienna Boys' Choir.

The new Gordon Clem House, named after the current headmaster, who has been a faculty member of the school since 1956, offers all the amenities of a first-class boarding school.

There's a combined gym and rehearsal hall simulating the acoustics of St. Thomas Church, a three-story great hall with fireplace and balconies, abundant oak paneling, a sky-chapel with a mahogany rose window, and a formal dining room where portraits of the founders grace the walls, and boys dress for dinner in coats and ties.

``These boys, from eight to 12 years of age, need light, cheer, and cohesiveness, since they spend most of their day in the building,'' says senior partner Harry Buttrick of Buttrick White & Burtis, the New York architectural firm that designed the work. ``That's why we've provided high, airy spaces, skylights, and lots of color. In addition, we've designed a central staircase to foster student interaction.''

The stairs serve as a sort of vertical quadrangle of the campus, and the only thing missing from this school is the rolling lawns and playing fields found in more rural boarding school settings. That's easily taken care of, though, by the school's closeness to Central Park, where the boys go daily, weather permitting, for sports and outdoor activities.

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Founded to carry on centuries-old Anglican choral traditions, the school has maintained stiff admission standards, including a voice audition.

``We are devoted to excellence in music, in academic achievement, and in the quality of our communal life,'' says headmaster Clem. ``We think it's not extraordinary that our boys can sing the `St. Matthew Passion' while they're learning several other things at the same time.''

Besides 10 hours of choir rehearsal a week and a few additional hours of mandatory piano lessons and practice, the boys have five academic classes a day, and several hours for sports.

St. Thomas subsidizes a good part of the cost of tuition at the school through scholarships and contributions.

There are many cultural lessons to be learned at the school. Aside from the obvious lessons in music and history, it's not unusual at St. Thomas to find the boys manning a weekly soup kitchen sponsored by St. Thomas Church for New York's homeless.

But aside from social causes, academics, and a rigorous singing schedule, perhaps the hardest thing for the boys to deal with is their inevitable coming of age, marked by a change in their voice. Joshua Mosher is in the eighth grade, his last year at the school. He talks about the change, in a voice that is noticeably lower than the other boys'. ``The last concert that I did was on Labor Day, and I was practicing for that, and I just couldn't sing some of the notes without having them go crazy. I had a lot of time before I actually lost my voice. I got over the initial shock and could control it until it was beyond the point where I could sing soprano effectively.''

Graduates of the Choir School, in many cases, go on to such well-known preparatory schools as Exeter, Andover, and Choate. Some pursue musical careers, like composer and conductor Gunther Schuller, Class of 1940. But for most, the school provides a foundation, preparing them to excel at whatever they choose to do. ``Our youngsters are just as apt to be doctors, lawyers, or dentists,'' says Mr. Clem. ``One alumnus is a clown and a juggler, and some are contractors. There's a great wide world out there for them after they get out of the eighth grade.''

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