School Architecture

Sundance School (1923), Crook Co.
Sundance School (1923), Crook Co.
Photo: Clayton Fraser Collection
Facilities for educating children—schools— have been in existence in America since the late 18th century. During the 1830s, reformers began campaigning for better educational facilities. Among the earliest and most influential of these was William A. Alcott, who published his Essay on the Construction of School-Houses in 1832. Alcott’s model classroom has served since that time as the generally accepted prototype for school buildings, both rural and urban: a rectangular space roughly 25’ by 35’, characterized by large windows and high ceilings, individual students’ desks arranged in lines facing the teacher, and open settings with adjacent playgrounds. His school is generally considered to be the characteristic form of American schoolhouse, recognizable to the present.

South Pass School (1910)
South Pass School (1910)
Photo: State Historic Preservation Office,
Photographer: Jack Boucher, 1974
As settlement in America continued westward in the mid-19th century, newly formed school districts could refer to an expanding array of pattern books in designing their schoolhouses. Interiors tended to be simple, vernacular spaces, featuring open classrooms with high ceilings—up to ten or twelve feet—surfaced by plaster, wood planks or pressed metal sheets. Floors in all but the meanest schoolhouses were wood planks, and the walls were typically plaster or boards, often lined with baseboards, chair rails and/or vertical-plank wainscots. Windows and doors were wood, with double-hung sash and paneled doors set in simple woodwork frames. Blackboards made of slate stone slabs, painted wood or liquid slate—a skim top coat of dense plaster, usually painted— often lined the back and side walls. The spaces were typically filled with rows of desks facing blank or blackboard back walls.

Public School, Chugwater, Platte Co.
Public School, Chugwater, Platte Co.
http://www.wyomingtalesandtrails.com/swan2.html
The exteriors were, like the interiors, simple. Most rural schools were simple rectangular boxes, single story with few, if any, projections or wings to complicate their footprints. Applied ornamentation was generally viewed with a degree of suspicion—an act of unnecessary extravagance on behalf of the school district. Materials on the exterior walls included horizontally placed logs (both round and hewn), clapboards or cove siding installed over balloon or platform frames, brick masonry, or combinations of the above. The schools tended toward symmetry, with a single-leaf entrance centered on the front wall, windows aligned singly or grouped on the side walls and blank rear walls.

Roofs were typically moderately pitched front gables or hips, sheathed with wooden shingles and displaying moderate overhangs with plain-board rafters and eaves. These roofs were generally punctuated with masonry or iron pipe chimneys centered on the ridge line, and sometimes with wood frame bell towers or cupolas toward the fronts. Most 19th century rural schoolhouses eschewed architectural features beyond modest entrance surrounds or gable treatments.

East Side School (1878), Laramie, Albany Co.
East Side School (1878), Laramie, Albany Co.
Photo: Clayton Fraser Collection
Wyoming's early schools followed these architectural trends. While Wyoming's rural one-room schools almost universally featured vernacular construction and design that lacked architectural features, the town schools in the 19th century displayed much faster evolution and much greater diversity. The first generation schools, illustrated by the rough frame buildings in Cheyenne, Laramie and Rock Springs, were typically makeshift affairs, built by emerging school districts or through popular subscriptions. The second generation, as illustrated by the Central Schools in Cheyenne and Casper and East Side School in Laramie, were often larger, more substantial and, with architects’ involvement in the design process, more stylistically sophisticated. Many primary and secondary schools in the towns were two stories in height. And they tended to rely more on masonry construction, either brick or stone. Their exterior walls were punctuated at regular intervals by large multi-pane windows with double-hung wooden sash. The typical town school featured a symmetrical configuration, with a single- or double-leaf main entrance centered on the façade. This was often enframed by a decorative wood surround with transoms and/or sidelights and capped by prominent three- or four-story central tower. Both primary and secondary schools were organized spatially with classrooms aligned symmetrically along double-loaded hallways that extended the depth of the buildings. Most importantly, the school districts had begun employing architects to design their buildings, with the result that they displayed a wide range of architectural expression.

Rawlins High School (1887), Carbon Co.
Rawlins High School (1887), Carbon Co.
Photo: Wyoming State Archives, Department of State
Parks and Cultural Resources Photographer: J.E.
Stimson, 1905
Richardsonian Romanesque and Chateauesque architectural styles were employed by some early Wyoming architects for school buildings. Developed by architect Henry Hobson Richardson, Richardsonian Romanesque featured bold forms and robust detailing, with an emphasis on ponderous weight created by massive masonry walls and steeply pitched rooflines. Rawlins High School, designed by Denver architect Fred E. Hale, erected its Richardsonian Romanesque sandstone three-story building in 1887. Hale also constructed Old Main (1887) at the University of Wyoming, in the Chateauesque style.


Old Main (1887), Laramie, Albany Co.
Old Main (1887), Laramie, Albany Co.
Photo: Wyoming State Archives, Department of State
Parks and Cultural Resources Photographer: J.E.
Stimson, 1906
In 1919 the Better Schools Conference issued its first bulletin of “Building Suggestions for Rural and Village Schools” to the county superintendents and rural district boards of Wyoming. The bulletin featured a standard design for a 32’ by 38’ rectangular frame structure with a hipped roof, a corner entrance that had a small “hall” or entrance vestibule, a cloakroom and a small library, a 24’ by 30’ classroom with a free-standing woodstove and brick chimney in the rear corner; and a bank of double-hung windows on one side of the classroom with two windows on the back and other side.



Delfelder School House Classroom (1921), Fremont Co.
Delfelder School House Classroom (1921),
Fremont Co.

Photo: Historic Preservation Office
Photographer: Mark Junge , 1976
School design, long the purview of the local districts, had by the 1920s become more professionalized in the state, with architects involved in the development of many of the state’s high schools and even some of the urban elementary schools. The Natrona County High School is an imposing Collegiate Gothic edifice designed in 1924 by Garbutt, Weidner & Sweeney, Casper’s most prominent architects. The ascendance of the Collegiate Gothic style coincided with a rapid expansion of college campuses that occurred after the turn of the 20th century, making it the style of choice among campus architects throughout the country. The style eventually filtered down through secondary and elementary schools and enjoyed long-standing popularity among American architects.


Natrona County High School (1924), Casper
Natrona County High School (1924), Casper
Photo: Clayton Fraser Collection
The Great Depression placed enormous financial pressure on Wyoming’s school districts; however, the Work Projects Administration and the Public Works Administration contributed massive amounts of money toward building schools in Wyoming. Architects during the Depression worked in a range of stylistic modes for Wyoming’s schools that ranged from the venerable Classical Revival and Collegiate Gothic to a new style that resulted from the hybridization of classical and modern motifs. Generally termed the starved classical style or Depression Moderne, it embraced the tenets of the emerging Art Deco and Moderne styles (and a decade later the International style), to form buildings with modern sensibilities that were relatively unembellished by ornamentation and austere compared with their classical predecessors. The most outstanding example of a school rendered in this Depression-era style was the Green River High School, a large, two-story, flat-roofed structure, with banks of double-hung and glass block windows and a stylized terra cotta entrance surround.


Lincoln High School (1942), Green River, Sweetwater Co.
Lincoln High School (1942), Green River,
Sweetwater Co.

Photo: Mary Humstone, 2007
World War II effectively slowed school construction in Wyoming, but after the war, new schools were built in large numbers across the state. These generally featured a new streamlined aesthetic, with an emphasis on horizontality, flat roofs, large banks of aluminum-framed windows, and—as always—relatively austere use of applied ornamentation. Numerous schools in Wyoming remain from this period, which continues in modified form to the present.


South Side Elementary School (1955), Worland, Washakie Co.
South Side Elementary School (1955),
Worland, Washakie Co.

Photo: Mary Humstone, 2007
Department of State Parks & Cultural Resources