My encounter with two old schools with similar architecture made me want to take a closer look at historic rural school architecture in general. Probably the best resource for this in our state is the South Carolina School Insurance Photograph collection housed online at the South Carolina State Archives website.
The early 1900s saw a flurry of school construction. Schools were consolidated, and new rural schools were constructed for both Black and White populations under the Rosenwald grant program. In 1919 the state created the Sinking Fund Commission to provide insurance coverage for public schools and other public buildings.
In 1935 the office of Special Agent was established for the Commission. The duty of the Special Agent was to inspect the state’s property holdings. The result of which was the creation of a collection of photographs of schools, taken from 1935 until 1952, which the Sinking Fund was absorbed into the state’s Budget and Control Board.
I love browsing through the collection. The problem, though, is that just about all you can do is browse. If you’re going to do any serious comparisons you have to do a good deal of clicking. I needed something more efficient. That meant collecting the photos in a format where I could manipulate and organize them easily.
Since I was working with old school photographs, it seemed only fitting that I use an old school technique. The State Archives website is simple flat HTML with no database or script coding. I could have downloaded the images one by one, but I knew there was a better way. I spotted some apps that would let you archive a site offline, but I already had a tool that would work. I fired up Windows XP in a virtual window and started the old Front Page program. It’s got a pretty good site import routine. I let it run, and in a matter of time I had all of the image files.
Once I had the files on my hard drive I could import them into Picasa and start organizing. Right away I could start to see similarities.
I started by creating and tagging groups of Rosenwald designs.
Once I had some of the obvious sets created I was able to start analyzing specific architectural features.
The iconic image is a one-room school with a bell tower, similar to this one that we saw in Northern California this summer:
School buildings with a bell tower are the ones that seem to appeal to me most. Here are several more local examples – Gowansville School in upper Greenville County, Wolf Creek School just outside of Pickens, and Wheeland School in Newberry County:
In the late 1800s the school bell was as necessary as text books and chalk. It called students from the rural surroundings, and served as communication for the community. While inclusion of bells diminished as schools were built in the 1900s, some school designs still included a tower. Here are some examples. Many of these are the Tuskegee design, which features a hipped roof and a bell tower centrally located of a recessed entrance. Some of these actually have bells, some do not. All seem to have a pyramidal roof.
What I noticed in viewing all these together is that some schools don’t have a bell tower, but have a sort of “vestigial” tower. Usually this is a pyramidal-roofed dormer. It appears to be purely decorative, meaning to hint at a tower. Some of these are little more than low hipped dormers.
In some cases, only a gabled dormer marked the spot where a tower would have been.
Of course, all of this is purely speculation based on viewing the the collection. I really have no idea when these photos were taken, and some of these with towers may have been built later than those with only hipped dormers. Even so, it’s fun to speculate.
What is not in dispute is that the bell tower is an important school architectural feature, whether real or implied. Even today towers make their way into modern school design. Most of Greenville’s new schools have some sort of tower. This is the new Brushy Creek, where I used to teach.
I never taught in that building, though. This was built after I left. Still, even the building I taught in is a far cry from the original Brushy Creek. Too bad it didn’t have a tower.