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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: Progressive School Architecture

A popular belief of the Progressive Era, and one shared by Pierre Samuel du Pont, was that a well-designed school building improved the overall quality of education received by students. Therefore, du Pont wanted to hire the best architect possible for the important work of improving Delaware's education system. He believed that "a school is a highly specialized type of building," and "experimenting with an architect who is not familiar with the latest ideas on school administration, design and construction is likely to prove very costly."2 To accomplish his goals, he hired James Oscar Betelle, a nationally-known architect of schools.

In 1920, Betelle wrote an essay entitled "New School Buildings, State of Delaware." In the article he described progressive architecture as a way to create better classrooms so that children would receive a better education. Betelle explained:

The school building program now in progress throughout the State of Delaware is at once the most interesting and probably the most important that has ever been undertaken by any State...nearly all of the school buildings are obsolete and in many cases a menace to the health and safety of the children....It is therefore possible to wipe the slate clean and make a new start. This means that the State will now have what almost amounts to an entirely new school building equipment, located and constructed along most modern lines. The more progressive citizens of the State have long realized that the course of studies and the buildings in which these studies were being taught did not measure up to modern educational requirements....

There will necessarily be a number of very small schools for the colored children, as the colored population in Delaware is scattered in small communities. The colored children will have schools of their own, but there will be no difference in design or construction between the buildings for white children and the buildings for the colored children....

The small rural school is not as simple a problem as it might at first glance seem....From the standpoint of first cost it was possible with the funds available to place the very best systems of heating, running water for drinking purposes, and the installation of water closets. It was not this first cost, however, that was the deciding factor, but the attention and expense that was necessary for proper maintenance after the systems had been installed....After much consideration and investigation it was decided to install chemical toilet fixtures to be reached through the coat rooms inside the small buildings. For the water supply system it was further decided to install a hand pump over a sink in the work room...For heating, a jacketed stove located in an alcove or a furnace placed in a small room outside of the class room was decided upon. It is realized that the jacketed stove will heat and ventilate the class room with considerably less coal than the furnace....A stove in the class room with the attending noise, confusion and dust caused by the putting on of coal and the removal of ashes is very much of a handicap to good instruction work....

The community use of these small schools has always been kept in mind. The class rooms will be fitted with movable desks which can be placed around the walls and the center of the room thus left clear for community meetings or dances....

Everything possible will be done to construct the building in such a way that the maintenance cost can be kept down to the minimum, and when completed, the school will be finished in every way, including the landscape work, walks, drives, etc.

Betelle made some very specific recommendations regarding classroom size and design, which followed national standards of the period. The recommended size for a classroom for 40 students was approximately 24 feet wide by 32 feet long. Natural light was considered one of the most important factors for a new school. The standards called for the natural light source to be unilateral (meaning one-sided), and to come from the pupils' left side as they sat in their chairs facing the teacher in the front of the classroom. The light would be provided by a bank of windows filling the wall and rising almost to the ceiling. To avoid too much light and glare at the front of the classroom, the windows would stop at least seven feet from the corner with the front wall. The building would be placed on its lot so that the light would not come through the bank of windows directly from the north or south. Furthermore, every room would have a closet for the storage of books and supplies. The blackboards would hang at the front of the room and on the wall opposite the windows. Seats would be moveable and adjustable. Room would be provided to hang hats and coats. The recommendations also specified play equipment, and a place to prepare hot lunches.

2Pierre S. du Pont to Board of Education, October 15, 1932, Pierre S. du Pont Papers, Longwood Manuscripts, Group 10, Series A, File 712, Box 5 (Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, Delaware).

 
1. Why did du Pont want to hire a nationally-known architect of schools?

2. Why was it necessary to provide several small schools for African Americans rather than fewer, larger schools?

3. Why did Betelle decide not to recommend that the very best systems of heating, running water, and toilets be installed?

4. Betelle wrote that "the community use of these small schools has always been kept in mind." What community functions could the building serve? Is your school also used for community purposes? If so, what are they?

5. What are some of the features and furnishings of progressive architecture described in the reading? Why do you think these features were considered progressive at the time?

Reading 2 was adapted from James Oscar Betelle, "New School Buildings, State of Delaware," American Architect 117 (June 1920): 751-788; James Oscar Betelle, "Architectural Styles as Applied to School Buildings," The American School Board Journal 58 (April 1919): 75-76; and two reports containing the standards for progressive schools, George D. Strayer, N.L. Engelhardt, and F.W. Hart, General Report on School Buildings and Grounds of Delaware (Wilmington, Delaware: Service Citizens of Delaware, 1919); and Report and Recommendations on Certain School Buildings in Delaware (Wilmington, Delaware: Service Citizens of Delaware, 1919).

 

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