The Decline of the Stately School

By 09/11/2009

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On the road in America, it has become hard to distinguish a public school from a post-industrial factory.  The schools are the ones with yellow buses parked outside.

The schools’ transition from stately, which was characteristic of the early 20th century, to sterile has several explanations:  the spread of modernism generally, the devaluation of public architecture in particular (city halls have been victims too), the physical growth of schools through both district consolidation and population increase, and fiscal pressures in the public sector.

Whatever the reason, today’s schools rarely invite respect.  Once aspiring to be temples of learning, they lack symbolic connection to their function–unless we suppose, with Diane Ravitch, that No Child Left Behind turned schools into testing factories.

Naming conventions have changed along with the architecture.  Yesterday’s monumental buildings often bore the names of patriots, presidents, civic leaders who promoted the improvement of local schools, or educators.  In Charlottesville, where I live, the most admired elementary school, still a symbol of civic pride more than 80 years after its construction, was named after Charles Scott Venable, who was a professor of mathematics at the University of Virginia and author of arithmetic textbooks.  But personal names have come to risk controversy, and Jay Greene’s research has shown that schools today are more likely to be named for a fish or a cactus plant than a president, let alone a teacher.

Book Jacet Image of "An Expression of the Community"That schools in the early 20th century could be more than stately—they could actually be places of  rare beauty—is suggested by the extraordinary history of Cincinnati, where schools incorporated fine art in the form of paintings, fountains, stained glass, tile decorations, and other architectural ornaments.    See An Expression of the Community:  Cincinnati Public Schools’ Legacy of Art and Architecture, published in 2001.  The jacket design, reproduced here, shows a terra cotta statue of a young girl reading.  This statue is on the roof of the Oyler elementary school, which still functions.

Comment on this article
  • Kit Stoner says:

    It’s hard to spend money on architecture when you’ve already spent it all on the football field.

  • Jay P. Greene says:

    This is an excellent post. But I wonder why school buildings have become less “stately” when their construction costs are currently sky-high. For more on runaway school construction costs see and .

    The problem does not appear to be “fiscal pressures in the public sector.” Instead, it must have something to do with prevailing school architectural fashions or gross inefficiencies in school construction spending.

  • George Mitchell says:

    I have a couple good friends in education architecture. I will send them this post and solicit their reaction.

  • Marci Kanstoroom says:

    Emmy Partin has written a response to Martha Derthick over at Flypaper:

  • Anne Dezelski says:

    We have seen the same thing happen to churches built in the last 30-50 years. They also have lost their stately appearance which enabled church goers to “raise their eyes to heaven” rather than look at the rather drab surroundings in many modern churches. It is hardly an inspiration to betterment of one’s life, let alone worship of God!

    Both modernism and the devaluation of pubic architecture would apply to both the schools and the churches.

    It is interesting that you also mention names. There have also been significant changes in the types of names given to children – a move away from traditional strong names to popular and trendy names.

    To me it seems that our vision has become shortsighted, and is reflected in the architecture of our buildings. The emphasis is too much on the changing present and not enough on how we fit into a continuity between the best of the past and preservation of that for the future.

  • Robert A. Flischel says:

    Martha, thanks for referencing our book “An Expression of the Community” on your recent posting. It’s interesting to me that every college & university in this country is relentlessly committed to creating an educational environment that contributes to the “Sense of Place” movement. However, when we talk about creating compelling learning environments for elementary and secondary schools, many people automatically disconnect from the idea. The response is generally reflexive and directed towards financial concerns, which is a way of avoiding any discussion of cost effective methods to improve our educational facilities.

    For more information on “Stately Schools” review the websites listed below—

  • Bonnie Williams Speeg says:

    The high school level students of the former School for Creative and Performing Arts building all said the same thing: the new building just didn’t FEEL like the school they had literally grown up in (most started there in the 4th grade). The transition from the early 20th century building, replete with enough Rookwood fountains, stained glass and wrought iron stair railings to create a small museum, to the smart, galvanized steel and glass new house of learning would be an interesting educational model to study. Both of my children graduated from the ‘old’ school decades ago. My mother graced its halls in the 1940’s.

  • Hume Morris says:

    The noble Charles Scott Venable graduated from college at age 15. He was a professor of mathematics, and instrumental in forming our chapter at South Carolina. He was a member of our fraternity at Hampden-Sydney and at Virginia.
    All of this occurred before he became Colonel, and General Lee’s “chief of staff”. He is suitably famous for his work in astronomy. Doubtless he would agree that the decline in architecture of any symbolic power is merely a mirror of our decline in moral and cultural values.
    Hume Morris ,Historian and former President, Beta Theta Pi

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