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The Commonweal


Another evening watching my preferred “talking heads” has made me nostalgic for the simpler America of my youth. In truth, I believe it wasn’t the country that was less complicated, easier to understand; I was the simpler part of the equation.

There is a difference between simple and simplistic. Likewise, I make an important distinction between dumb and stupid. It is the latter in each of these pairings that Mr Trump craves, that his supporters cheer; and that should make us pause and take stock.

In my opinion “dumb” is no bad thing. It’s the bottle opener in your kitchen junk drawer. It’s the ballot question written so a “Yes” vote actually means you approve the issue. In architectural terms — a realm where I feel more confidence — it’s the door knob in the right place, the natural place, and the door swinging in a clear, appropriate and obvious direction; a door that leads you into a lobby with sufficient room to choose a direction without obstructing the movement of others who know the place better than you do. You’d be surprised how often architects choose stupid over dumb. Maybe you wouldn’t.

The prospect of Mr Trump’s America is terrifying because the ignorant are preferable to the unthinking. Ignorance is remediable. Remediable, that is, if we are able to sustain and strengthen our system of public instruction. If you’ve failed to notice, education is an endangered institution, threatened by Flat Earth, Intelligent Design, and Abstinence Only. If, by some miracle of adoption, we become parents, I’ll quit my day job and Home School.

Typically, this is my long way ’round the barn to the topic du jour: schools. I’ve never designed a school, despite having visited more than a few. So it’s time to address the evolution of school design in my favorite Iowa town.

“The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.” — Sydney J. Harris

Imagine you are a school administrator (principal) or school board member, someone with responsibility for the physical setting for education. Then imagine it’s the second half of the 19th century and you live in a small town in the Midwest with a few carpenter-builders and no resident architect. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 mandates public education as a foundation for citizenship, so what are you to do about creating the community’s earliest public schools.

The need for competent teachers was addressed early in American history through creation of “Normal Schools” specifically to train grade school teachers. The Iowa State Normal School (now the University of Northern Iowa) at Cedar Falls was founded in 1876 for just that person. During Agincourt’s first first twenty years, finding good teachers was hit or miss. But making buildings to house the process was an even more risky proposition.

Lacking any guidance from the State Board of Education or the county Superintendent of Public Instruction, local communities were left to their own devices. The architectural profession was in its earliest stage of development and most had little experience with schools as a relatively new building type. So Agincourt’s first school buildings may have been barn-like affairs with a pot-bellied stove and no indoor plumbing. Fortunately, The American School Board Journal began publication in 1891, providing a wide range of information necessary for the operation of a modern educational system. It presented models for a wide range of size and budget, and architects were quick to advertise their services and generate a virtual mail order business for generic plans and specifications.


Among the more successful specialists were F. S. Allen of Joliet, Illinois, and William B. Ittner from St Louis. Both advertised in the SBJ and the breadth of their practice is attested by postcard images of schools from Indiana to Nebraska. Though his name doesn’t appear on the card, F. S. Allen’s advertisements  used an image very much like this design for a school in Waukegan; the bulging bay windows were a trademark element.


Like many architects of his time, Allen could “vary the monotony” with a dormer, an entry vestibule, any one of a number of elements to suit local taste and budget. He is the same building (more or less) in Galva, Illinois.


Agincourt’s four quadrants are an opportunity to illustrate the evolution of public school design from 1850 to the mid-century modernism after WWII. Not to mention that working on these will take my mind off the election campaign that will not die! and restore a little sanity.


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