by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The school year has began for some schools, while others will be opening in days and weeks to come—this happening, of course, amid this most unusual of circumstances and controversy with the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. This latest entry in the “Getting Schooled” series is one that deals with a subject we don’t nearly pay attention to as much as we used to decades and decades ago: the aesthetic quality of the architecture of our school buildings.
Tonight’s highlighted object from the Homestead’s collection is the January 1926 issue of Pacific Coast Architect which features “Recent Southern California Schools” as its theme. The magazine was donated by long-time museum volunteer Sherri Salmans, a retired teacher who purchased the magazine because of her avid and ongoing interest in her profession and specifically in the history of schools in greater Los Angeles.
The main article in the publication is “The ‘New Freedom’ in School Architecture,” by John J. Donovan, an Oakland architect who oversaw that metropolis’ city hall, some of its libraries and quite a few of its public schools. He began his essay by stating that “it is indeed a pleasure to pay tribute to the architects whose work graces this number, for a fine and pleasing note is added to the scale of California School Architecture which is already notable by many recent accomplishments.”
Donovan continued that “it is interesting to observe the absence of severe formalitiy and the freedom from rigidity of the hard-fisted technicalities in the simplicity and ease of the compositions” adding that “this is indeed commendable and a tribute to the intelligence and training of the authors, for they have molded pleasing forms about indisputably hard facts and rigid rules, sacrificing nothing of the principles in the doing.”
Much of the change in the situation almost certainly had to do with the burgeoning pride communities took in the beautification of school buildings as a reflection of the growth in educational attainment and the importance placed in education in society. When public school education was new in greater Los Angeles, from the mid-1850s onward, construction of facilities was highly utilitarian, and Donovan wrote, referring generally not locally, that “for many years, hardly more than walls, windows and roofs constituted the buildings called schools.”
Moreover, “the rooms were large in area and were crowded with pupils of all grades and ages, a ‘potpourri’ as it were.” As to light and air, little attention was given “to say nothing of age, grades, or subject matter classification.” In this area, Los Angeles High School, completed in 1873, had more thought put into its purpose and design, but its biggest statement wasn’t so much architectural as it was positional—its placement on Poundcake Hill over the city literally elevated education above any other public building in the growing city.
Donovan refers to the fact that “some time about 1900 the teaching and medical professions were directing public attention to the badly lighted and wretchedly ventilated school buildings being built and existing over the land.” This led, he went on, to a situation in which
the pendulum of restraint swung far to the side of building schools by rules and regulations, leaving common sense, initiative, good taste, human values to the soul and mind, and good architecture to shift as it might in other fields, because the rules and regulations were more important in the minds of the authorities legally equipped to spend the money.
Calling for someone to write a full exposition of the subject of the growth and development of school architecture, Donovan noted that “the architects have sensed the problems of hygiene and are embodying the angular lines into lovely forms, yielding delight and charm to the eye and mind.” Yes, “a school is of necessity an institution,” he noted, “but the trend of effort and the spirit in accomplishment prevailing today are towards the softening of the hard lines of formalities.”
As for California, Donovan noted that “there is so large a sense of length and breadth to space and areas” and “a climate which encourages departure from the compact and formal.” It also helped that there was a growing cadre of architects specializing in school architecture and which led to “new thought, new conceptions, a little more daring and a loveliness in expression both in design and use of materials that add charm and delight to these landmarks which are destined to grace town and country for many years.”
Of course, the technical aspects of the design and construction were important in “the matter of minute detail and exactitude in requirements,” but Donovan turned to another art form as a metaphor, opining that “like the technique of music, should we not go on to the variations and freedom in action and personal expression . . . in order that what we do is executed practically, economically and correctly and yet gracefully and in good taste?”
What this issue of Pacific Coast Architect showed, then, is that architects of schools “have acquired the technique of school hygiene and with that as their guide have departed from the old roads of travel and have found new ways, modes and forms more pleasing.” He cites also the landscapes, with lawns, trees and shrubs and color schemes (which, naturally, can’t be seen in the black-and-white photos), as just two examples.
In concluding his essay, Donovan summarizes the attitude and spirit of the time when it came to schools and their architecture:
The people of this State have been generous to Education. Great sums of money have been provided for educational buildings and equipment and the tendency is for more to follow and of greater proportions and I think this generosity is largely due to what has been accomplished by the architects in the executed work. A pride in attainment and a sense of intimate possession has permeated the minds of the people and they are accordingly generous to Education. Isn’t this selling education for enriched citizenship and selling it by the most tangible means possible? That seems an excellent reason why a fellow architect should feel a sense of pride in the achievements and accomplishments of his confreres working along the same lines.
There are many accompanying illustrations of school buildings in Los Angeles and environs constructed during the 1920s boom that led to a huge influx of new residents and, of course, associated institutional, commercial and residential buildings. These show attractive and utilitarian school buildings, some with more exuberant Spanish Colonial or Renaissance revival styles and they do reflect a sense of pride from the communities in which they were located.
Another interesting article from the publication is “Good-By, Florida! Hello, California!” by Miss. G.A. Shaffer, in which she discusses the massive land boom underway in the Sunshine State, including rampant speculation, congestion of people flocking to the state, high prices for rentals and the like.
Shaffer added that “from the Spanish names, one would think this was California. Every California name seems to have a Florida namesake in some new subdivision.” She went on to note that “while there is some that is good in new Florida building, there is much that looks suspiciously like it has been ‘adapted’ from California, by copying.” Moreover, many veterans of the Golden State real estate market were in Florida “running huge busses full of prospective purchasers from many states.”
She wrote that “there is no doubt that California can learn some lessons in cooperation from Florida” and that promoters from the latter promoted the growth of the sugar industry, automobile manufacturing, improved highways and rail lines, new ports and the draining of swamps to make their state more attractive. There were also, however, questionable practices in funding bond issues and the practice of “binder trading,” in which there were multiple deposits paid for properties with “each depositor selling for an advance before the second payment is due, and the original ‘binder’ depositor has made an abnormal profit on the property of someone else.”
Tellingly, she concluded, “everyone says values are stable,” but Shaffer asked “is this believed by the New Jersey tailor, for instance, who just sold his hotel for $170,000 at 100% profit or the Nebraska contractor who made a profit of $30,000 on a quick turnover of his $200,000 apartment house.” That money was sent back home “while they say they are waiting to build until they can get materials more easily, and to give boom prices a chance to catch up with the great tourist influx.”
She noted that, while hordes were flocking to the Sunshine State, “there are some who believe the drawbacks offset the advantages” and cited a sign purportedly seen painted on the automobile of a departing tourist who came during the “hot season,” meaning the very humid summer months: “I may go to hell, but never again to Florida.” She wrapped up with the simple statement of “our trip was interesting, of course, but California never looked so good as at the end of it.”
In fact, it was the case that the boom was starting to go bust by the time the article came out and a pair of hurricanes, bank failures in the summer of 1926 and other factors led to a dramatic downturn that continued until the Great Depression. Not that greater Los Angeles was immune from real estate speculation and falling prices during the latter half of the decade, but it was not on the scale as Florida’s rapid descent.
Lastly, it is always interesting to see magazine and newspaper advertisements and there is a selection reproduced here notable, obviously, because they are industry-specific for all manner of firms dealing with building and construction. This, of course, includes those showing their work for school projects throughout greater Los Angeles and contrasting the architectural styles of the Twenties with the utilitarian and spartan styles of most modern school structures is striking.