What was a star architect thinking?
When I worked at the Chelsea Standard in the 1980s, I often covered events at Chelsea High School. It was not a single building, but a campus of one-story structures that students scurried between in all types of weather. I was told it was designed by a California architect who didn't understand Michigan winters.
Imagine my surprise to learn, years later, that it was actually the work of Minoru Yamasaki, the famous Modern architect who went on to design the World Trade Center. Born in Seattle, Yamasaki moved to Detroit in 1945, so by the time he designed the school in 1956, he had been through eleven Michigan winters.
But Yamasaki evidently wasn't thinking about winter. In a 1957 interview with Architectural Forum, he explained: "We hit upon the idea that if the buildings could each express their individual character that we might be able to depict the quality of a small town. The auditroium, gym, homemaking area would symbolically and literally be the town center."
Yamasaki was hardly the first architect to ignore practical problems. A janitor once broke a leg tending an elevated planter at Alden Dow's Ann ARbor library. Frank Lloyd Wright's eccentricities - leaking roofs, tiny kitchens - are well know. But Chelsea needed a new school - the high school population, then fewer than 400 students, was predicted to double in ten years.
Local architect Art Lindauer encouraged an innovative design. "I went to the school board and said, 'Every school looks like each other,'" recalls Lindauer, the father of Chelsea mayor Jason Lindauer. "'Why don't you try an architect with a different approach?'" Asked for suggestions, he mentioned Yamasaki, who at the time was activiely pursuing school work. After interviewing a dozen architects, a citizen's committee recommended hiring Yamaski, Leinweber, and Associates.
Peter Flintoff, whose father, Howard Flintoff, was secretary of the school board, recalls hearing that they felt lucky to get Yamasaki. Alyce Riemenschneider remembers that her parents and their friends were also excited to have someone so famous design their school.
People raised questions about the campus layout, but according to the Standard, school board members argued that the design would "provide the best building program at the most economical cost." Outside walkways would to-ceiling windows [it] was much nicer than the traditional string of hallway lockers," recalls Carol Cameron Lauhon, who also graduated in 1961. Covered walkways with brightly colored bubbles at building entrances served to unify the campus and afford some shelter as students passed between classes.
The main building, which Yamasaki called the "Town Center," contained the cafeteria, library, gym, and auditorium. Circling the auditorium were six classrooms used for English and social sciences. A Central atrium was open to the sky and filled with planst and bushes. "For the prom, the junior class would decorate the atrium with flowers and green plastic truf and furnish it with a wooden bridge over a small pond. Couples posed on the bridge for their prom photos. Very romantic!" recalls Lauhon.
June Winans, who taught earth science and geology, shared the science building with biology, chemistry, and physics teachers. Shop classes, the Standard explained, also had their own building so that "noises made by operating equipment or hammering and sawing will not disturb other classes."
The home economics and art building had a pitched roof to look more like a house. Riemenschneider recalls that the desks converted into cutting tables and that sewing machines were hidden in veneer cabinets. The kitchen had the newest stoves and refrigerators and an island, a novelty at the time. After preparing a meal, the students moved into a dining room and a living room.
At an open house, the Standard reported, "most people were impressed not only with the beautiful appearance of the new campus type high school but also with its very evident functional features."
The students who made the transition still have fond memories of Yamaski's school. "The exterior walkways between buildings felt less confining than the old school's intererior hallways and multiple stairwells, some of them narrow and windowless," says Lauhon.
"I was happy to walk outside," says Brown, adding: "The teachers aid it woke the students up."
"The breath of fresh air did them good," says Bill Chandler, the school's work-study coordinator. Sam Vogel, social studies teacher and later assistant principal, recalls that "the covered walkways developed leaks, but, unless it was pouring, it wasn't a problem."
Parents were less thrilled. Some thought it was ridiculous that their children had to go outside. One recalls her daughter tell her, "mom, we don't need decent clothes to go to school. We just need a good coat."
As enrollment grew, an auto mechanics garage was added, and a new bulding facing Washington for social studies. The cafeteria was enlarged by moving the library into another building.
But when the locker room got overcrowded and rowdy-the staff dubbed it "God's Little Acre" - there was no way to expand it. Eventually the lockers were movied into the "town center," but "then the halls were too crowded," Vogel recalls. The atrium also became a problem, with maintenance issues and heat loss through the single-pane glass the surrounded it.
Yamasaki's futuristic vision never caught on: the present Chelsea High, built in 1998, is again a single building. His campus, however, is still in use - its buildings now house the Chelsea Senior Center, school board offices, Chelsea Community Education and Recreation, and Chelsea Early Education. The roofs and bubble entrances are gone, the original large windows have been replaced by smaller ones, and the atrium has been filled in to create a windowless meeting room.
But students who went there still have fond memories of their school. "It seems to me that the Yamasaki design was a new way of imagining spaces for student life," says Lauhon. "The school was a pleasant place to be. My sense is that this is what Yamasaki had in mind."
The bell atop the Stone School Cooperative Nursery, 2600 Packard, still rings as it did when it was a one-room school. The heavy bell is rung by the nursery school students, with the aid of a teacher, to mark the end of the morning and afternoon sessions. "They get excited when it's their turn to ring it," says teacher Barbara Hutchinson. "It's the best part of their day."
From the outside, the building looks much as it did when it was built a century ago. The front door still opens into a hall with cloakrooms on either side, one originally for the girls and the other for boys. "The boys' room had shelves and hooks for dinner pails and coats and was also used for wood storage," an early grad recalled at the school's 100th anniversary celebration in 1953. "The girls' was the same except for the wood. A roundwood-burning stove sat in the middle of the room." Today boys and girls share one cloakroom; the other is the office.
The present building is actually the second stone schoolhouse on this corner. The first was built in 1853 to serve children from nearby farms. Benajah Ticknor,who built the house that today is the city's Cobblestone Farm, leased a triangle of land at the edge of his farm to Pittsfield Township with the stipulation that it be used for a school.
By 1911 the old school had become overcrowded, so the community gathered to build a new one. Residents took the old one down as soon as school closed in June and by working all summer had the new building ready by fall. They reused the stones from the old school, supplemented with stones cleared from nearby farms.
From 1918 to 1927 the school was used by Eastern Michigan Normal (today's EMU) as a training school for student teachers—with half of the supervising teacher's salary paid by the college. During this time hot lunches were served and a ninety-foot well was dug, eliminating the need for the bigger boys to tote pails of water from a neighboring farm. When Eastern abandoned it, the school was organized into grades, from kindergarten through junior high. (Before then, students arriving in the fall had just started in their primers wherever they had left off the previous spring.)
As the surrounding farms were developed after World War II, the school again became too crowded. In 1949, a new cement block building was built across the street, and the old school was boarded up. But growth was so rapid that
just three years later, it was again needed. With money furnished by the Pittsfield school board, the PTA added a kitchen in the basement and built a cinder block addition on the back to house a bathroom–until then, students had used outhouses. the refurbished school hosted noon hour activities, movies, Boy and Girl Scout meetings, music, physical education, and speech correction classes.
In 1955, Pittsfield School District No. 7 was absorbed into the Ann Arbor Public Schools. The old school was again unneeded, so a group of parents requested permission to reopen it as a nursery school.
The school board agreed, renting the building to the Stone School Co-op Nursery. That arrangement continued until 1994, when the school board announced they planned to put the building up for sale. The nursery parents loved the school and wanted to stay, but by then the building was more than eighty years old and very run-down. "It was a very scary time," recalls Hutchinson.
The parents asked the school board to give them a year to find the money to buy the building. Barbara Loomis, a recently retired librarian, took the leadership on fund-raising. Her son had attended the school in the 1950s, and her grandchildren were then enrolled. The parents met the deadline and in October 1995 bought the building for $120,000. In 2005 they paid off their mortgage, becoming one of the few co-op nurseries in North America to own its building.
When the nursery bought the stone school, tile was falling off the roof, the window frames were rotting, the masonry at the entrance was crumbling, the trim needed painting, and the basement needed remodeling. But Loomis was sure that it was worth saving. "It's beautifully constructed and solid as can be," she says. "The windows on the north are long and skinny, while on the south they are big and cover the whole wall. Even then they knew about southern exposure for light and heat.
Loomis got the building placed on the National Register of Historic Places and then landed a grant to fix the roof and chimney. She recalls that it was quite a challenge to match the tiles—"only one company still made them."
Most co-op nurseries share their space, usually with a church. Owning their building gives the parents who run Stone School more freedom. For example, they designed the playground specifically for preschoolers. However, it also means they have to do all the upkeep—cleaning, shoveling snow, raking leaves.
One year the parent volunteers had extra help with their year-end cleaning. Loomis received a call from the police, who had found the school's sign in the trunk of a car they had stopped. Some fraternity boys had stolen it as a prank. When asked if they wanted to press charges, the school leaders decided not to, as long as the boys helped with the cleaning. "When they were done, they had more respect for the parents," recalls Loomis.
The school's two paid teachers, Hutchinson and Annie Zipser, have both been there twenty-two years. They are assisted by two or three volunteers, depending on the size of class. In the early days the helpers were always mothers of children in the school, but now it is not unusual to have fathers or other relatives. "We have three grandparents who are the primary assists and several others who come as treats," reports Anna Mae Trievel, co-president of the co-op.
The students are also more diverse, with many ethnicities and races represented. "We usually have a few children who yre new to this country, who don't know English," says Zipser. "We tell the parents to make sure they know the word for bathroom."
The co-op philosophy has not changed over the years. "We believe in learning through play," explains Hutchinson. Recent projects include units on dinosaurs, outer space (including building a rocket ship), weather, butterflies, and planting seeds. Field trips include the fire station on Ellsworth, Wild Swan Theater, and the Leslie Science Center.
Since the children haven't yet experienced regular school, the teachers don't say a lot about the building's past as a one-room schoolhouse. "The kids are pretty young to make much of it, but they are aware," says Loomis. Trievel tells of her daughter Caitlyn's first visit to Greenfield Village: "She saw the one-room schoolhouse and said, 'This is like my school!'"
The Stone School Co-op Nursery is hosting an ice cream social/rom 2-4p.m. on Saturday, May 14, to celebrate the building's centenary.
By 1911 the old school had become overcrowded, so the community gathered to build a new one. Residents took the old one down as soon as school closed in June and by working all summer they had a new building ready by fall.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: (Above) Students stage a snowball fight for a photographer when the 1911 building was still a Pittsfield public school. (Top) Neighbors gather for the school's centennial celebration in 1953.