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A $3.9 million art installation is the most lavish NYC private school amenity yet: ‘It’s an arms war’

It’s truly the upper class.

At the end of February, Friends Seminary, a $63,200-a-year private Quaker school on East 16th Street, unveiled a $3.9 million art installation on its roof.

The Skyspace by James Turrell is a jewel box room where light from windows and artificial sources are mixed together to stunning effect.

Friends Seminary, a Quaker school, got a break on the price of its Skyspace. The artist, James Turrell, is a Quaker. Glasshouse Images/Shutterstock
Friends Seminary, a Quaker school, got a break on the price of its Skyspace. The artist, James Turrell, is a Quaker. Glasshouse Images/Shutterstock

There are just 85 Skyspaces in the world, and the one at Friends, where students range from kindergarteners to high schoolers, is the only one at a school that isn’t a university.

Insiders say the art installation, which is open to the public on select Fridays, is the latest shot fired as NYC private schools compete to offer increasingly lavish amenities.

“There is absolutely an arms race,” an educational consultant told The Post. “You have parents paying over $60,000 to send their kids to private schools. That’s a big ask. And they generally want the best bang for the buck.”

Turrell’s work is in top museums around the world and is beloved by celebrities. Kendall Jenner has a $750,000 Turrell sculpture in her Beverly Hills home, while Kanye West and Zynga mobile games founder Mark Pincus have donated millionsto fund the artist’s life’s work — Roden Crater — a massive piece, 40 years in the making, that’s carved out of an extinct volcano in the Arizona desert.

But, the 80-year-old art-world star is also a quaker who used to live near Friends and worship on its campus. He proposed the project and donated his time and another artwork, which was sold at Christie’s for $187,500, to help offset the $3.9 million in construction costs.

Friends’s president, Robert Lauder, fundraised the remaining millions and thinks the Skyspace has the potential to draw in families who might not have otherwise considered the school.

Kids at Friends Seminary hang out in the school’s Skyspace. Friends Seminary
Kids at Friends Seminary hang out in the school’s Skyspace. Friends Seminary
“It would be an interesting family that uses the Turrell as a calling card,” says an educational consultant of Skyspace.
“It would be an interesting family that uses the Turrell as a calling card,” says an educational consultant of Skyspace.

“[It shows them that] this school values creativity — at a time when some schools are cutting back on those kinds of programs,” he told The New York Times.

The educational consultant said that some amenities at the city’s toniest K-through-12 institutions are more about bragging rights than artistic expression.

“Parents want to go to cocktail parties and gloat,” she said. “It would be an interesting family that uses the Turrell as a calling card. But [others] will say something like, ‘Your kids may be going to the school that is rated number one in the city, but our kids are going to the school with the best and newest swimming pool …’ If you are not fortunate enough to have a vacation home, a swimming pool is a big deal in New York City.”

The swimming pool at Riverdale Country School is a luxury in a city where even many of the wealthy do not have their own pools. Riverdale Country School
The swimming pool at Riverdale Country School is a luxury in a city where even many of the wealthy do not have their own pools. Riverdale Country School

She pointed out that, in 2017, Riverdale Country School, where tuition is $54,545, unveiled a six-lane swimming pool that’s a work of art unto itself. Designed by PBDW Architects, who also did Equinox’s swank Greenwich Village flagship and worked on the restoration of John Jacob Astor IV’s Rhinebeck estate, it is built into a cliff with glass walls that afford picturesque views.

Meanwhile, the Upper West Side’s Calhoun School (annual tuition $63,500), is famous for its gourmet lunches, courtesy of a team of chefs that has included alums of the French Culinary Institute, ABC Cocina and Momofuku.

“They have the most amazing food on Earth,” gushed the consultant, who went on to imply that this has not been lost on the competition. “It’s been a model for a lot of lunch [programs].”

Thanks to a restaurant-worthy kitchen crew, kids at Calhoun School are not lunching on dry meatloaf and lousy pizza.
Thanks to a restaurant-worthy kitchen crew, kids at Calhoun School are not lunching on dry meatloaf and lousy pizza.
The Nightingale-Bamford School features a black box theater, courtesy of the Lauder Family. @The Nightingale-Bamford School/Facebook
The Nightingale-Bamford School features a black box theater, courtesy of the Lauder Family. @The Nightingale-Bamford School/Facebook

On the Upper East Side, the Nightingale-Bamford School (annual tuition $61,655) unveiled a state-of-the-art, professional-level black box theater seven years ago, courtesy of the Lauder cosmetics family.

Nearby, the Dalton School (tuition $61,120) opened its Engineering and Design Center in 2019. It has a array of high-tech fabrication tools, including a 3D printer, to serve the school’s six robotics teams

Sportier types might prefer Grace Church School ($62,270 per year) on the edge of the East Village. There, a $15-million gymnasium, constructed in the late 2010s, features a batting cage and a golf simulator.

The Dalton School’s Engineering and Design Center helps to foster Elon Musks of the future. @Daltonschoolnyc/Instagram
The Dalton School’s Engineering and Design Center helps to foster Elon Musks of the future. @Daltonschoolnyc/Instagram
If students get injured while competing in the double-height gym at the Chapin School, it’s no sweat. Behind the scenes is an athletic training room with an ultrasound and electrical stimulation machine. JRM Construction Management
If students get injured while competing in the double-height gym at the Chapin School, it’s no sweat. Behind the scenes is an athletic training room with an ultrasound and electrical stimulation machine. JRM Construction Management

Not to be outdone, the Chapin School (tuition $62,500) did a huge gym renovation in 2021. Amenities include a rooftop playing field, a double-height gym with a running track and a treatment room with giant whirlpool tubs and ultrasound and electrical stimulation machines.

A pair of full-time trainers are on hand to deal with game-related maladies.

While the sports medicine wizardry may sound impressive, the consultant can’t help but question the utility.

“If you can afford private school tuition, wouldn’t you send your kids to the top specialists for medical rehab?” she asked. “Plus, how much of that cost could have gone to education?”