Community School Plans, 1920-1928

Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia| Posted: 7/7/2008

When Julius Rosenwald and Rosenwald Fund staff began to question Tuskegee's management of the building program, they hired Fletcher B. Dresslar, professor of school hygiene and architecture at Nashville's George Peabody College for Teachers, to assess the plans and structures. Dresslar was one of the few educational professionals committed to rural school design, the author of two bulletins on the subject for the U.S. Bureau of Education. In his 1920 Report on the Rosenwald School Buildings, Dresslar lambasted the structures that he had inspected. The Tuskegee plans were adequate but did not meet Dresslar's standards for lighting, ventilation, and sanitation. Worse yet, county school officials and contractors altered the plans at will and bought cheap materials to stretch construction dollars further. When local citizens did the work, they often were not skilled carpenters and had little or no supervision, so they made mistakes in interpreting the plans. Dresslar recommended that the Rosenwald Fund require more on-site supervision and complete adherence to its designs as conditions of financial assistance. He also called for new plans that would better address his concerns for lighting and ventilation, and allow for an auditorium and future classroom additions.

Dresslar's critique was part of the rationale behind the removal of the building program from Tuskegee and the creation of the Nashville office. He and Samuel L. Smith, the new building program director and Dresslar's former student, prepared the plans that would become the archetypal Rosenwald schools of the 1920s and early 1930s. The Rosenwald Fund published the designs, titled Community School Plans, repeatedly from 1920 until 1931. Some of the Community School Plans incorporated and upgraded the Tuskegee designs, and others reflected contemporary school designs for white rural schools and the plans that Dresslar and Smith had previously collaborated on for the Tennessee Department of Education. The Community School Plans also eliminated some features of the Tuskegee designs: gable roofs replaced the hipped and clipped-gable rooflines, and the plans were exclusively for one-story structures.

Dresslar and Smith were especially concerned about lighting and the conservation of children's eyesight. Accordingly, they limited windows to one side of a classroom, which would reduce eyestrain by ensuring that a single stream of light falling from left to right would illuminate the blackboard and desks. In addition, the Community School Plans maximized natural light by using narrower window framing in the sashes and much taller windows that stretched from the interior wainscot cap up to the eaves. Another of Dresslar's concerns was ventilation. "Breeze" windows set high under the eaves or on interior walls also provided cross ventilation by pulling air from the windows across the room and into a hallway or adjacent classroom. In addition to sliding doors and removable blackboards to open up interior space, the larger schools in Community School Plans included dedicated auditoriums for school and community events.

Rosenwald schools also had their own color schemes, and specific requirements for interior appointments. Especially in the early years of the building program, school façades were often painted with a nut brown or "bungalow" stain and white trim; white with gray trim and light gray with white trim were also recommended. Interior paint schemes employed bands of color to accentuate the effect of the battery windows on light levels and students' vision. Walnut or oak-stained wainscoting ran along the lower section of classroom walls, surmounted by gray or buff painted walls and light cream or ivory ceilings. The resulting horizontal bands of color reflected and intensified natural light entering from the windows set above the wainscot, while the darker wainscot minimized glare at desk level for seated pupils. Light tan and translucent window shades also aided in controlling light levels.

School equipment received the same careful scrutiny to ensure that the building could have the greatest impact on its occupants. Blackboards along three walls served the teacher for instruction and students for practice assignments. Modern patent desks replaced the rough wooden slabs, pews, and benches typical of many other black schools. Often African American community members found it difficult to pay for patent desks in addition to their contribution to the building and asked to be relieved of this burden. White school officials would have preferred to transfer used furnishings from white schools over to black ones. However, the Rosenwald Fund remained firm and refused to make final payment on buildings that did not meet its standards for the exterior or interior.

Schools built according to Community School Plans are the most easily recognized Rosenwald schools. Rosenwald building facades generally were as simple as possible, limiting decorative details to a bare minimum that might suggest the Mission or Colonial Revival styles familiar from early twentieth-century residential neighborhoods. Simplicity was a key Progressive design concept denoting order, rationality, and functionalism. It also served to make these buildings more affordable, modern in appearance when compared to the vernacular buildings they replaced, and modest in comparison with white schools. Next»