In 1910, A D F Hamlin, Professor of Architecture and Design at Columbia University, wrote about a revolution in school architecture: “How large a span of the life of a community is spent within the wallsIf I was asked to design a school building now, I would not design one after the same plans as Lake View. of its schools, and how important it is to surround . . . children with the most perfect environment for their hours of study. The schoolhouses of any community are gauges of its enlightenment. They should be the best and most carefully constructed buildings it possesses.” According to Hamlin, the United States had not yet achieved universal awakening, but “the last fifteen years ha[d] witnessed a great advance in the average quality of American School buildings.”
In the 1890s and 1900s, architects such as William Ittner in St. Louis and C B J Snyder in New York City codified every aspect of modern school design. In the drive to accommodate, educate and assimilateJacob Riis, PS 165, c 1902. MCNY. Snyder’s first school built on the “H” plan, completed in 1898. The building runs through the middle of a block but still allows light and air to enter every room. Because he built primarily in New York, Snyder designed more vertically than other architects, heightening the imperative for fire resistance. vast immigrant populations, they diagrammed, measured, and systematized educational architecture. A school’s design, they believed, could “affect for better or for worse not only the educational work and administration . . . but the health and happiness and even the morals of the pupils.” Closed up within dark, dirty, dusty, or dangerous spaces, immigrant students would have no possibility of becoming what the architects thought of as proper American citizens. But with massive budgets behind them, Ittner and Snyder built hundreds of schools near the turn of the century, refining floor plans, mechanical systems, lighting arrangements, and a long list of hygienic imperatives. Professor Hamlin wrote with a cheerful sense of shared accomplishment that the “designing of public school buildings has been more completely standardized than for any other type of structure. . . . [C]ertain fundamentals . . . have become commonplaces of principle among school experts of all classes.”
Above all else, modern school architects sought to control student movement, environmental hygiene, and fire. Each of these larger concerns broke down into detailed, data-driven standardsThe Graham School, Chicago, c. 1909. LOC. The emphasis on hygiene and ventilation drove some schools to exclude heat from classrooms and leave windows wide open throughout the winter. “Every school,” wrote the Chicago Evening Post, “ought to have its open window room where those who need the hygiene of fresh air . . . may grow rosy-cheeked and sparkling.” Open Air Crusaders. Ed. Sherman Culver Kingsley. United Charities of Chicago, 1910, pp. 68, 83. that replaced the scattershot methods of earlier generations, while also, in retrospect, plainly revealing prejudices. Progressive architects designed with the “Americanization” of immigrants very fully in mind, assuming almost always their tendency toward degraded and uncivilized habits. Classrooms, they believed, should have only one door to any shared hallway. It needed to be cut to precise measurements and stand at the front of the room to ensure that teachers could prevent mass panic in common areas during any emergency. Proper stair and hallway widths avoided congestion or injury and enabled easy movement. In high-ceilinged classrooms, precisely calculated ratios of windows to floor space ensured a flood of sunlight and the absence of harmful glare. Ideally, windows covered only one wall to the left of students, preventing shadows on desks when right-handed pupils bent forward to work. Architects moved bathrooms, previously confined to the basement, to each floor of school buildings in the hopes of encouraging cleanliness; plumbing suppliers marketed toilets that claimed to stop the spread The E-shaped floor plan for Ittner’s Lafayette School in St. Louis. Classrooms have strictly observed proportions; large windows cover only one wall, even in corner rooms; single doors at the front of rooms lead to a common corridor; Windows illuminate and ventilate the hallway. Concrete stairways stand separated at opposite ends of the corridor. Fletcher Bascom Dresslar. American Schoolhouses. 1911. plate 169, np. of germs and odors. Even corridors, thought the new generation of architects, should have abundant natural light and consistent flows of fresh air. To accomplish this, Ittner and Snyder pioneered new footprints for schools, sometimes borrowing from the layouts of European palaces. Ittner favored E-shaped buildings where Snyder favored an H shape, but both men aimed to create spacious courtyards that allowed the free flow of light and air into every room. When windows had to be closed, new ventilation systems introduced precisely thirty cubic feet of fresh air per hour for each student in a classroom. Smoke tests ensured ideal directional drafts. No school, Ittner believed, should be near industrial smokestacks.
William Brinkloe, “Building the War-Time Schoolhouse,” ASBJ, August 1918, p.39. A decade after the fire, Lake View remained a notorious example of dangerous design. Brinkloe’s article emphasized that children ignored teachers and “rushed madly out through the cloak rooms and down the back stairs.” In the smoke-filled common hallway, terrified children met up with terrified peers, escalating the chaos.Very little about the Collinwood School fit with these hygienic and logistical standards, but the failure to build for fire prevention mattered most. In repeated publications, Ittner, Snyder and others recommended non-combustible materials and firebreaks throughout school interiors. Snyder built stairways of “steel with cut stone or asphalt treads.” Lake View’s architects used yellow pine. Snyder described the stairwell of one school he designed as “enclosed from bottom to top” by walls of wired glass, with steel doors providing access for each floor. In Collinwood, the open front stairwell ran from the basement to the attic, and fire roared upward through it. The building’s rear stairway approached the exit at an angle, and a vestibule forced students to make tight turns through a bottleneck to escape. Instead, they tripped, stumbled, and climbed over one another in a horrific but immovable jam only a few feet away from safety. Dozens of students burned there, within the sight and grasp of people struggling to pull them out.
Called immediately to investigate the scene of the disaster, Ittner and Snyder savaged Lake View’s design. For only an additional ten thousand dollars, Snyder said, the building could have been fire proof. At the very least, he emphasized, the basement should have been isolated by concreteFletcher Dresslar. American Schoolhouses, 1913. Plate 167, np. Following the floor plan above, Ittner completed the Lafayette School in 1907. Staircases were concrete. Windows line exterior walls, except at corners to avoid light from two directions in the classroom. fire stops and metal doors. Ittner spoke in more philosophical dismay: “Why is it that so many hard lessons must be learned by bitter experience? . . . The planning and construction of school buildings is so well understood that mistakes leading to serious loss are almost unpardonable.” Ittner acknowledged forebodingly that Lake View represented a degraded architectural standard of its own, with thousands of similar buildings dotting the nation and erupting regularly into flames. In the first three months of 1908 alone, he reported, fifty-eight fires broke out in educational institutions. Only good luck had prevented mass cremation in a school from occurring many years before. Blundering builders who failed to embrace the revolution in school design could no longer be tolerated.
After the fire, even the architects of the Lake View School agreed that the building had been designed for tragedy, though they minimized their role in its construction. At the coroner’s inquest,“Education,” an allegorical figure, teaches adults about the imperative of fire proof construction. She holds a book entitled School Architecture. Outside the window, the Collinwood school burns. John Eisenmann, who drew the original plans in 1902, explained: “If I was asked to design a school building now, I would not design one after the same plans as Lake View.” But, at the time, “there was no code regulating public buildings. . . . Collinwood is not a rich community and the directors tried to save every cent in the construction of the Lake View building. They even cut out walks around the building, spending money enough only to build a walk to the front entrance.” Willard Hirsh of Searles, Hirsh, and Gavin explained that, in taking charge of Lake View’s 1906 expansion, his firm had only “supervise[d] the construction of the complete rear half of the structure according to Mr. Eisenmann’s original plans. ” The 1906 addition doubled the school’s capacity but added no new doors. Having seen his work burn with 175 people trapped inside, Hirsh came to agree that all schools should be of fire resistant construction. In a stunning fragment of self-unawareness, one month after the disaster Hirsh wrote an article, “The Lesson Learned from the Collinwood Fire.” There he asserted that “Every school board should at once safeguard the lives of the pupils in their charge. . . . The burden is yours if disaster occurs. Life is more precious than dollars. If money is needed, ask the public for a bond issue; and if that is defeated, let the responsibility rest with the fathers and mothers and not with you.”
In a seemingly unfathomable decision, Collinwood’s school board hired Searles, Hirsh, and Gavin to build the town’s new elementary school, despite the catastrophic results of the firm’s 1906 efforts. Maybe the indefatigable Willard Hirsh had inside connections with the town’s leaders, but no record of their logic survives. Completed in 1910 and resembling many of Ittner’s plans, the Collinwood Memorial School was of the latest fireproof construction.