The School of Visual Arts was founded in 1947, as the Cartoonists and Illustrators School. At the time it was in upper Manhattan, but before 1960 it had moved downtown, widened its curriculum, and changed its name, becoming less of a narrowly-focused cartooning school and more like the SVA we know today. In 1978 they first offered a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.
In addition to the East 23rd St. building (both 205 and 209, one is just offices and the other is full of classrooms), SVA has a few other locations scattered around 23rd St., mostly on the east side of the island. There's a building at 380 2nd Ave (and 310 E. 22nd St.), with classrooms, the SVA library, and much of the Animation department's facilities. There's one at 214 E. 21st St., containing more classrooms and WSVA, the school's low-range, student-run radio station (broadcasting on 590 AM). There are a few buildings further west - the building encompassing 133 through 141 W. 21st St. has a large number of classrooms and offices and a small gallery on the ground level, rivaling the main building on E. 23rd in size. There are a pair of smaller locations across the street at 132 and 136, and a bit downtown at 30 W. 17th St. is the Sculpture studio building. SVA also has a gallery at 137 Wooster St. in the Village.
Nevertheless, 209 E. 23rd St. remains the center of SVA, due to the amount of classrooms and administration offices in the building, and the presence of VASA, the Visual Arts Student Association, whose office is the focus of many student groups due to its convenience and three couches. 209 is also helped by the pleasant fact that its lobby always has something interesting on display, whether it's student work or that of a professional guest exhibitor.
SVA provides housing for its students, but because of high costs and limited availability (both consequences of living in Manhattan) many students who come from the area opt to commute from home, and many more find their own living space in the area (I hear Queens is the cheapest borough now).
SVA's main dorm is the George Washington, which is conveniently located at 23 Lexington Ave. - a turn of a corner and a single block and you're at the E. 23rd building. As I remember, it was an old hotel that closed down and was bought by the college.
Rooms are small, pricey, and you can't even have a microwave, but it's convenient. The main disadvantage of the building is the lack of space and lack of convenient cooking facilities (there's only an inconvenient communal kitchen on the top floor). Secondary to the lack of amenities is the lack of upkeep - though they repaint the walls every year to the point where the thick paint makes the doors stick, the building is still dusty and feels like it's falling apart. An elevator gets stuck somewhere or refuses to leave the lobby at least once a day, and students often report problems with cockroaches (Though I only saw one cockroach in my two semesters living there, and I killed it by spraying it with Goo Gone). During the move out/move in period between the Spring and Summer 2004 terms, a student was overheard on the Mezzanine saying into a cellular phone, "No, Mom, this place is a crack house!"
Also in Manhattan is the New Residence at 215 E. 23rd St., which opened in January 2002. It features two to three double rooms sharing a living area and kitchen, closest to school and at the highest cost of any of the residences. I don't really know much about this building, since I have not lived there, nor do I plan to. In any case, from what I know about it, this seems like an excellent choice for those SVA students who don't mind living with a roommate.
There's also the Gramercy Women's Residence, at 17 Gramercy Park South, which is a similar situation to the GW but without the male students, and there were the Newport Residences, in Jersey City.
At the end of the 2002/2003 academic year (i.e. in May or June of 2003), the Newport residences were closed - SVA declined to renew their lease on the sections of those buildings which their students inhabited. The reason given by SVA was lack of interest - I suspect that most students living in the dorms were unaware how quick the trip from JC to NYC was, and how nice the Newports were. In any case, the purpose of the Newport residences has been largely taken over by the New Residence
The detailed explanation of the Newports which I originally wrote follows, though it's no longer relevant; I suppose it may be useful for reference to someone.
The Newport consists of a pair of buildings, the Thomas Jefferson and the James Madison, and IMO is the best housing option. It's significantly cheaper than the Manhattan housing, and the larger rooms are divided into suites of three, each of which shares a living room, dining area, and full kitchen and has central heat and air. The Newport is a 15 minute commute by PATH train to 23rd St.
Study & Culture
I loved it at SVA my first year. THe studio classes are excellent, and my teachers at SVA were the first I've ever had in the visual arts, aside from one great exception, who are unafraid to criticize students' work and actually give useful criticism, rather than simply praise or dismissal as "bad". Of course, that's more a consequence of the transition from high school to college than of being at SVA in particular, but SVA's teachers seemed exceptionally reasonable to me.
The only complaints that I had of the school after a semester and a half were consequences of my personal situation - I was accepted later than most people, and therefore missed out on housing selection, though I made it into the Newport residences my sophomore year, and switched to the George Washington for junior year, though after that I elected to leave that crack house and move to independent student housing.
I gradually grew to dislike History and Literature classes at SVA, because while I enjoyed the reading and the lectures, the writing assignments were tedious and generally required more research than original thought - which is not what I expect out of the work I am assigned at an art school. However, it became clear to me in my third year at SVA that one's learning, enjoyment and success in one's classes is almost entirely dependent on the selection of good teachers. At any art school, it can be very easy to become disillusioned with a chosen discipline if your relationship with your teachers is inadequate.
Therefore, it is important in one's first year especially (since it is a "Foundation" year, in which almost all majors take generic art classes for which teacher selection isn't as important) to meet people from one's major and find out what you'll be getting into in subsequent years. If you can find the time, it's also a good idea to sit in on prospective future classes, and take note of the teaching style and the amount and type of work.
Unfortunately, SVA's location and culture are not very conducive to meeting people who you are not already in class with. The spread-out, disconnected buildings and the lack of any central area that you'd want to hang out in make it hard to go out and meet some SVA students - in my experience, students generally make friends out of the pool of people that they see in class, in other school activities (such as club meetings, or the various magazine and comic publications), or at their residence. This is true of any school, but especially true of SVA - the lack of any campus, not even the enclosed set of city blocks that many urban colleges have, makes social contact with the majority of the student body difficult for most students. This can make student life in general difficult if one doesn't make a determined effort to meet people.
Despite meeting mostly cartooning and animation students my freshman year, I still managed to choose excellent courses out of blind luck (and some recommendation from my department advisor). However, this didn't carry over to my junior year, when I ended up in a pair of classes that I really enjoyed (both concentrating on 3d design and constructing objects) and a few classes that I didn't (all rather strict traditional graphic design, without strong distinctions between "good" and "bad" to me).
That's really all I should detail so far about my time at SVA, since my future there is still indeterminate, and so I'll leave with a general (if harsh) statement about the school:
If you don't make SVA work for you, you will work for it. It's not one of those schools which safely cushions its students, grooms and prepares them - it will help you, but only as much as you force it to. What you get out of it is what you demand it give you.
That may sound bitter, but I don't mean it to be. In other words, SVA is like the city it inhabits - it's bigger than you, and you must carve your own place.
SVA 01/02 Student Handbook, for addresses.
http://www.schoolofvisualarts.edu/ for miscellaneous facts.
http://www.curtispapers.com/profiles/SVA_intro.html for confirmation of the historical notes I remembered.