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Arthurdale Schools

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1935–1937, Steward Wagner, with assistance from Elsie Clapp. Northeast side of School Driveway, east of WV 92, northeast of the Town Center, and east of the present school
  • Arthurdale Schools (Library of Congress)

From Eleanor Roosevelt's perspective, one of the chief aims of the resettlement projects was to provide a proper education for children and adults. Elsie Clapp, widely known for her progressive educational ideals, was selected to organize the Arthurdale schools, an advisory board was established, and personnel from West Virginia University's Department of Education assisted with the project. As envisioned, the program would begin with prenatal instruction and continue throughout the life of the individual. Curricula would promote selfexpression, open discussion, and vocational training. Formal courses, classes, and grades would be abolished or at least minimized. Put simply, the ideals were too much for their time and place. The high school failed to obtain state accreditation, and within two years the original scheme floundered. Private funding (much of it from financier Bernard Baruch) decreased, Clapp departed, and the more traditionally oriented Preston County Board of Education absorbed the formerly independent Arthurdale schools.

Six separate buildings—overkill for a community intended to have a maximum of 165 households—expressed the lofty educational aims of the founders. Clapp first met with project architect Eric Gugler in February 1934 and presented her ideas to the homesteaders soon afterward. As recalled in Community Schools in Action, she recommended “not the traditional type [of school building] but rather simple buildings of two or three units, which will be homelike in character and allow the maximum amount of sun and air.” During the spring and summer of 1934, Clapp continued to discuss plans with Gugler and his staff and selected “a dry and sunny vale in the lee” of the hill on which the Arthur mansion stood. The stillbucolic setting was large enough to provide a playground and was close to woods and a stream. Philosophically and topographically, the rolling landscape dictated an informal layout. Unfortunately, Gugler apparently never comprehended Clapp's idea of simplicity and a homelike character for the design. A photograph taken in 1934 shows the two, along with others, standing around an architectural scale model obviously based on Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia, with its formal arrangement of ten pavilions housing classrooms and a massive rotunda housing the library. Gugler's model showed only six pavilions (the requisite number to house various grades), but it did include a rotunda. When Gugler departed the project in September 1934, Steward Wagner took over the design work. A relieved Elsie Clapp recalled in another book, The Use of Resources in Education, that “Wagner, an able and experienced architect, quickly grasped the School's function in the homestead community.” Speaking for himself, Wagner described his revised plans in the April 1938 issue of Progressive Education: “the exterior design of the buildings is Early American farmhouse type to conform with the houses and other buildings previously erected on the homestead.” He was referring to the Hodgson prefabs, the only houses that had been built when the school project began. Construction started in April 1935, and the schools were rushed to completion in time for the fall semester. Because of costs, fireproof masonry construction was abandoned in favor of wood frame.

In their overall appearance and placement, Arthurdale's schools, lining a lane, form a village within a village. The first four of the original six buildings remain. The gymnasium and recreation building was placed nearest the road (West Virginia 92), as it was expected to have the largest number of users in the community. Perhaps the most straightforward of all the components, the building expresses the functions it houses very clearly. A tall central block containing the combination gym and auditorium is surrounded by shed-roofed wings housing auxiliary functions. The high school was located next to it, proceeding southeastward, as its students would be the primary users of the gymnasium. Accommodating the six upper grades that traditionally make up junior and senior high school classes, this component presents an extended facade to the lane. A shop at one end emphasized vocational training, and a large barn door provided access for farm wagons needing repairs. The school center, containing a cafeteria, offices, and a doctor's quarters, is a multilevel, T-shaped building with a symmetrical three-bay facade. Offices were in front, while the cafeteria and kitchen were in the rear wing. The elementary school is almost postmodern in effect, with an exaggerated Palladian portico and tall chimney forming the central element. Inside, all classrooms were equipped with running water for instruction in various crafts and to reduce traffic in lavatories.

The last two buildings, the primary school, which was identical in plan to the elementary school, and the nursery, which had its own playground at the secluded end of the lane, are gone. Abandoned when Preston County, took over the school operation, they were later converted into factories, then into chicken houses, and eventually demolished. The two currently occupied school buildings west of the original complex and closest to West Virginia 92 were built later.

Writing Credits

S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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