As elsewhere, America’s school buildings (or their absence) have reflected American goals for pedagogy, citizenship, and schooling generally. Over the years, the prevailing design evolved from one-room schoolhouses to temple-like academies to flat-roofed utilitarian structures that maximize light. This entry summarizes that progress.
School architecture in colonial America was very limited. Town schools met in spare rooms of meeting houses, town halls, or shops. Dedicated school buildings appeared after U.S. independence. Built vernacularly, without architectural plans, most school buildings resembled cheap churches or homes. In rural districts—subsections of a town—neighbors would erect a simple schoolhouse, often on land unsuitable for farming or close to the road, which gable ends fronted. A counter ran around three sides of the interior wall, which students could use as a desk on benches facing outward. Center benches accommodated smaller pupils and higher winter attendance. Rural southern “old field” schools similarly occupied overworked farmland and lacked amenities.
After 1800, academies proliferated in towns and cities in both the North and the South. Boasting comfortable, well-equipped interiors, their impressive Greek Revival architecture sought to attract students and link schooling to republican values.
Beginning in 1830, common school reformers included schoolhouse improvement among their broader goals. Concerned about children’s health and learning environments, reformers lamented cracked walls, drafty fireplaces, few windows, primitive sanitary facilities, and poor ventilation. Besides solving those problems, reformers suggested facing pupils forward in rows. This layout would improve surveillance, which could reduce flogging and facilitate all-group pedagogy.
A New Emphasis
In 1837, when Horace Mann became Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, a supplement to his first annual report challenged Massachusetts towns to build new schools or improve old ones. Mann’s Connecticut counterpart, Henry Barnard, issued similar articles and a book, School Architecture, in 1842. Many towns in those states and beyond met the call, building or renovating schoolhouses using reformers’ designs.
Sited in more sheltered locations, new schools possessed playgrounds and outhouses. Some separated boys and girls in the classroom, sustaining the era’s careful gendering of space. However, southern states, budding western settlements, and poorer towns everywhere implemented schoolhouse reforms more slowly.
Boston took another step into reform with the aggraded, twelve-classroom Quincy School in 1847, which supplanted the large, multiage classroom. Age grading spread quickly in most cities. By the 1850s, many city school systems included high schools, whose buildings could rival academies in size, facilities, and aesthetic appeal. Typically brick, two to four stories high with pitched rooflines, and located on small sites where land expense dictated, these buildings incorporated classical elements like temple fronts.
After The Civil War
In the South after slavery, African American children and adults craved schooling, but facilities lagged behind educational needs. Although many areas nationwide provided inadequate segregated schooling, rural southern schools for African Americans were particularly shabby. Still, in 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld “separate but equal” public accommodations in Plessy v. Ferguson. Many communities overlooked the “equal” part, dramatically shortchanging African American students in funding and facilities.
City school buildings grew again amid surging urban populations after the Civil War. Although some sported Victorian details after 1890, many acquired a factory like look and feel, with their overcrowded classrooms, hallways, and playgrounds. But reformers could increasingly point to improved heating and ventilation; indoor plumbing; large windows; individual desks; and more blackboards, maps, and scientific apparatus. New York City’s school building superintendent C. B. J. Snyder developed the H-shaped school, which maximized light and air, and city schools installed electricity beginning in the 1890s.
Also beginning around 1890, as the mission of schooling expanded, schools gradually added gymnasiums, libraries, laboratories, art and music rooms, theaters, cafeterias, and workshops—developments boosted after 1910 by John Dewey’s progressive educational ideas, urging organic school-community connections. School Superintendent William W. Wirt of Gary, Indiana, created the Gary “work-study-play” plan to optimize facilities and activities in every school building, a design applied in many cities. Other school architects contributed ideas for more complex, multifunction schools, trying also to ensure flexibility for future pedagogical change.
The Twentieth Century
More than 200,000 rural, one-room schoolhouses were in use in 1920, many retrofitted with indoor plumbing, electricity, and larger windows. Improved transportation had increased access to advanced schooling for rural children, but it also enabled rural school consolidation to accelerate after 1910. Consolidated rural schools, built with expert designs, eventually doomed the one-room schoolhouse.
In growing suburbs after 1920, new schools of one or two stories enjoyed expansive footprints on sites of several acres, expressing their newly comprehensive mission. The Depression and World War II halted school construction for a generation. By 1950, this deferred demand plus the baby boom, along with migration southward, westward, and into suburbs, triggered a school building boom.
Postwar schools adopted modern architectural style, often with flat roofs and, some complained, bland, mall-like appearance. By the 1960s, as baby boomers hit their teens, new high schools appeared in suburbs and cities. Admiring British open classrooms intended to encourage self-directed learning, the Ford Foundation established the Educational Facilities Laboratory. The EFL promoted innovations such as movable walls, open designs, and educational use of new media.
Many school buildings fell into disrepair when enrollments dropped again in the 1970s, whereas others were converted to offices and apartments. By the 1990s, critical maintenance problems threatened numerous school buildings, and rapid growth areas faced an outright shortage of schools, problems that communities are scrambling to rectify. Positive trends today include designing school buildings with greater community use in mind, particularly regarding athletic and library facilities, and school libraries that integrate information resources beyond books. Besides capacity and maintenance, challenges in school architecture include air quality, handicapped access, energy efficiency, and security.
- Brubaker, C. W., Bordwell, R., & Christopher, G. (1998).
- Planning and designing schools. New York: McGraw-Hill. Cutler, W. W., III. (1989). Cathedral of culture: The schoolhouse in American educational thought and practice since 1820. History of Education Quarterly, 29, 1–40.
- Graves, B. E. (1992). School ways: The planning and design of America’s schools. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Gulliford, A. (1996). America’s country schools (3rd ed.). Denver: University Press of Colorado.
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