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Sumner Academy of Arts and Sciences
The Sumner High School, now the Sumner Academy of Arts and Sciences, has played a significant role in the saga of the desegregation of Kansas schools. This building also illustrates the evolving stylistic trends of the 1930s and is a representative of the work of local architect Joseph Radotinsky.
Built in 1938–1939, the school was financed through the sale of $751,000 in bonds and a grant of $337,500 from the Public Works Administration (PWA). It was erected as a segregated school for African American students, as a replacement for an earlier school of the same name that stood nearby. This previous school was built in 1905–1906 following the State Legislature’s authorization of school segregation in Kansas City in the wake of racial tensions that followed the killing of a white student by a Black youth. By 1931 the first Sumner school, named for the noted abolitionist Charles S. Sumner, was severely overcrowded, and the local school board began to advocate for the construction of a replacement. In 1932 the school board began acquiring property across Eighth Street for a new school building, and also built an athletic field on the northeast corner of Eighth Street and Oakland Avenue at the northern end of the downtown district.
The new building was organized along two parallel, north-south double-loaded classroom corridors with a generous courtyard between the two wings. The long corridors were connected on the north and south ends by transverse corridors that provided access to an auditorium on the south end of the building and a swimming pool and gymnasium on the north end. This was the third high school in Kansas to have an indoor swimming pool. The eastern corridor was three stories in height; the western corridor was only one level. The corridors served thirty-two classrooms, including four well-equipped science rooms. The main entrance to the building was near the southeast corner of the building, between the classroom wings and the auditorium.
The interior was finished in durable yet stylish materials. The corridors and stairways featured terrazzo floors, glazed block wainscoting, and plaster walls and ceilings. Tile murals graced alcoves for drinking fountains. The classrooms had wood floors and plaster walls and ceilings. Doors and trim were executed in dark stained wood. The 1,200-seat auditorium was the most highly articulated space. The walls were made of tan brick with brown brick wainscoting and banding. The proscenium had a carved wooden surround and was flanked by decorative textured-brick panels. The space, which is substantially intact, is lit by handsome metal pendant lights.
The exterior of the building borrowed from a variety of contemporary modern sources. It was clad primarily in tan and brown brick. On the long classroom wings the darker brick was used as wainscoting running up to the top of the first-floor windows and as a banding running between the regularly spaced windows on the upper floors. The most expressive portions of the building were concentrated at the southeast corner. The corner was anchored by the auditorium, which was entered through a limestone-trimmed portico in a one-story, brown brick lobby projection. It was joined on the north, by an intermediate tan brick mass, to a dark brick entry tower pierced by four thin, full-height glazed recesses. The entrance at the base of the tower was flanked by limestone pilasters and capped by a projecting limestone canopy, topped with stylized metal letters spelling out the school’s name. The formal composition of the entry elements is reminiscent of the work of the Dutch architect Willem Dudok while the classroom blocks recall aspects of Gropius and Meyer’s Fagus Factory. Taken together, they give the building the boldly modern image it retains today.
The sophisticated composition might have been expected given the pedigree of Radotinsky, the building’s architect. Missouri-born Radotinsky moved to Kansas City, Kansas, as a child and went on to study architecture at the University of Kansas. In 1924 he became one of the earliest graduates of the new program, which was an exponent of contemporary European stylistic trends and educational approaches. Radotinsky then worked for a year for the firm of Miller and Reeves in Columbus, Ohio, before enrolling in a year of special study at Columbia University, where he distinguished himself as a prize-winning student. He stayed in New York City for an additional year to work as a designer for Thomas W. Lamb, who operated a large and prestigious architectural firm.
After returning to Kansas and working in the firm of Archer and Gloyd, later becoming partner, he left the firm to become the State Architect of Kansas. In the next five years, he gained experience in the design of a variety of building types. After opening an independent practice in Kansas City in 1934, one of Radotinsky’s early jobs was as associated architect and local coordinator for the Wyandotte High School (1935–1937, Hamilton, Fellows and Nedved), the whites-only counterpart to Sumner. This job introduced Radotinsky to the Kansas City School Board and gave him insights into educational expectations he would apply at the Sumner school, which, under the doctrine of “separate but equal,” was intended to parallel Wyandotte in the quality of its facilities and in its operation.
The two schools operated in parallel until 1978 when a court ruling mandated the integration of all Kansas schools. At this point the Sumner High School was renamed the Sumner Academy for Arts and Sciences. The change in the school’s curriculum and student body led to a series of facility alterations, which followed a 1975 addition that provided Sumner with a new cafeteria and gymnasium. While these changes did not always enhance the architectural character of the original design, Sumner’s essentially modern look and feel was maintained.
NOTE: This entry was originally published in David Sachs and George Ehrlich, Guide to Kansas Architecture (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996). © 1996 by the University Press of Kansas.
Cloud, Dana, and Sally F. Schwenk, “Jewell County Courthouse,” Wyandotte County, Kansas. National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form, 2002. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Ford, Susan Jezak, “Sumner High School and Athletic Field,” Wyandotte County, Kansas. National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form, 2005. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Peavler, David J., “Drawing the Color Line in Kansas: The Creation of Sumner High School.” Kansas History 27 (Autumn 2005): 188-201.
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