Alexander, Hartley Burr Letters to Teachers, and Other Papers of the Hour Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company 1919

For the nonce I should like to be visionary and indulge an Utopian fancy–remembering (as I would have my readers remember) that all the monuments which mankind has erected were once but Utopian visions, and that it is out of such visions that the selective years make their choices of the ideals which men deem worth working for. At least one fruit of the cultivation of the imagination is to give men those images of ideal things from which the possible are chosen and the actual created.

Ever since, as a boy, I went to school at the old frame house, foursquare with the four winds, and shivered in a corner far from the stove, I have formed and reformed my speculative vision of the ideal school–which, of course, has grown in form and finish with the cumulative terms. In the first place, I would have the school buildings, if not monumental, at all events beautiful in form and proportion and attractive in site; for I am a firm believer in the power of noble architecture to inspire noble thinking. Architecture is, after all, the most humane of all arts; for it is concerned not in imitating the forms of nature, but in satisfying directly human needs, and of all the works of man it is capable of giving the most conscious impression of the strength and dignity of his intelligence. Architectural quality should be a prime requisite of every public building and most of all of educational buildings, where the whole spirit of the state is being formed.

But architecture must be appropriately seated, and my second demand (not less imperative than the first) is that every school yard should be a garden. I do not mean a vegetable garden (though in cities space for even that is worth while), but I do mean a garden of trees and shrubs and flowers, and above all a garden for the bright graces of childhood and youth–an embowered playground. The seat of the most famous of all universities, the Academy of Plato, was a grove; and nowhere should a fane of education be erected in less devoted surroundings. Every school yard should be famed for its elms and oaks, its lilacs and roses; for the beauty of architecture is never perfect save it be set in the friendly context of the beauty of nature–nor, I think, is it far-fetched to suppose that the subtle lesson of the interdependence of man and nature may be first impressed by this outward symbol. At any rate, beautiful groves have always seemed to men sacred.

There is, in cities, another reason for park-like school yards. The streets of modem towns are becoming yearly more perilous, while the houses themselves are more and more packed and gregarious– the lot spaces shrinking, the flat and apartment houses increasing in number, and the children in consequence being crowded more and more to the literal walls. It seems amazing to me, in view of all the sentiment we have for golden childhood and in view of the undoubted love of parents for their children, that such meager intelligence is used in providing space for the life of childhood–space, space, space I with sunlight and turf and room for running. Sooner or later (and, oh, it should be sooner) our communities will awaken to a consciousness of their own blind cruelty, and they will restore to the children the right to out-of-doors which God gave them. And surely the schoolmasters and school directors should be the leaders in such a movement. For which reason, I think, no city or village school should be set in a space of less than two ordinary town blocks; while even the country school can afford to choose a fair field for its site. This at least, out of my Utopia, I shall prophesy–that the school of the future will be seated in a garden.

But let us enter my imaginary school garden–two hundred yards long by a hundred wide, or thereabouts, with the buildings forming a solid H, following the lines of the rectangle, and enclosing two courts for sports and out-door school (for I see no good reason why in fine weather school should be an indoor affair). A low wall, with vines running over it and flowers and shrubs lining it, surrounds the school precincts, while at each comer of the grounds there are clumps of trees, with play or picnic spaces on the sward beneath. We will enter where the path comes in beside one of these clumps–say, at the northwest, for normally the axis of the plan should be north and south.

Proposed School

As we turn into the path, we perceive to our left, at the north center of the grounds and a bit secluded by greenery, a small chapel built on the old Byzantine plan of superposed cross and circle. We may return to this bye and bye; for the present, we are drawn in the opposite direction. There we see–dignified with those columned porticoes which in themselves are the architectural image of learning and stateliness–the facades of the two buildings which form the extremities of the upper arms of our H. That which we are passing, to the right, is the museum of the civic and school district. It contains the gifts of beautiful and curious objects which every community receives when it provides a place for them; it contains natural history collections; it contains exhibits of the artistic work of the school children, or others; and it is of course provided with spaces for special exhibitions of interest to the community. There are rest rooms and store rooms below the main floor, and on the floor above are women’s rooms-small committee or conference rooms and a large community club room for women, open every day. The branch of the H leading back from this to the transverse central building, contains on the first floor primary grade rooms (as does the corresponding branch across the court), while the second floor is devoted to studios and rooms for girls’ instruction in things domestic (let us not call it by the terrifying name of “domestic science!”). Naturally, quarters for cooking and dining are adjacent to this section, and they are to be found in the western end of the central transverse.

But we are moving too rapidly from the entrance. The building corresponding to the museum, at the north end of our H, is the community library, with men’s club rooms in the basement, and on the second floor reading and study rooms, leading directly into the grade rooms of the adjacent branch, which should have free access to the use of books. Beyond, in the eastern wing of the central building, are locker and rest-rooms, teachers’ quarters, and, toward the street (as also on the corresponding west extremity of the bar) a semi-circular sun-room to be used especially for little folk whose health needs double care. The south extensions of the arms of our H, beyond the transverse, on the east are devoted to school rooms for the grades, and beyond, widening away from the court to allow greater space for sports, to a gymnasium; while on the west, the technical and scientific laboratories lead on to shops for wood and metal working–which ought to be open from eight o’clock of mornings until nine at night, with free privilege of work to all school boys. Indeed, the whole western section of the school, which is devoted to arts and crafts, should keep open for long hours, giving the widest opportunity for the independently ambitious maker (and all youths are ambitious makers) to exercise his craftsman’s ingenuity.

Between the shops and the gymnasium extends the great playground, with ball-court, tennis, and what not, for the older children–the youths. And there are seats for spectators against the south wall–rather for the elders than the young; for youth should play and age applaud, where sports are the issue (not but what father should come to the bat when son wants a little quiet game at the old gentleman’s expense–or there might be quoits under the trees for the fat and sedate).

But the central building of our group is yet to describe. It is the architectural key and crown, the two courts formed by the branches of the H constituting its approaches. Loftier than the adjacent wings, or any other unit of the whole, it is capped by a dome–in my school, by an observatory with telescope, for the observation of the stars is one of the most fascinating and ennobling of studies, the parent of science, the inspiration of philosophies, the true liberalizer of the imagination. Beneath this dome is the theatre, for school assemblies, for public meetings, for civic or community drama and music. Drama is and should be the natural art of democracies. Further, it can be made and should be made an important and continuous feature of public instruction–continuous from school days on throughout life’s course. There is no reason why the schools of a community should not furnish dramatic entertainments of many kinds–plays, operas, cinemas, pageants, vaudeville (if it be made what it can be). There is every reason why the schools should furnish such entertainments–as for the cultivation of taste and morals, for the advancement of intelligent citizenship (for so many reasons that I propose to write a letter on just this by and by). In my ideal school, certainly, this theater is never idle, but for school children and citizens alike it is perpetually presenting the best attainable, and perpetually bettering the attainable in creating the demand for its betterment.

The front of this central theater, facing the north court, is in the form of an outdoor stage–for in such a climate as Nebraska’s there are many, many days when an outdoor performance is the most charming of all. This, too, for music (chorus, band, or orchestral) is the ideal place, with the gardened court before it for spectators and listeners. You will remember that the first story school-rooms opening on this court from the sides are for the primary grades; and these rooms open out in wide sunny arches, forming a loggia all around the court, with a balcony above from the second-story rooms–all like the two tiers of boxes in a theater, affording seating for the spectacle staged out-of-doors. The space beneath is a formal garden, with a large paved circle just before the stage (like the orchestra of a Greek theater), and lesser circles or hexagons, surrounded by seats, interspersed by urn-borne plants and flower beds. Here the smallest folk have their play, and here, on sunny days, their teachers bring them out for lessons while of evenings the whole court is lighted with garden lanterns, and the grown-ups listen to the music, or watch the pageant on the stage or the dancing in the paved orchestra. In fact, this area is the center of community recreation, and the question of the day always is, “What is going on at the school-theater tonight?”

We have now completed the circuit of the schoolyard, and are returned to the northern entrance. There before us, facing the court, but secluded in its setting of shrubs is the little Byzantine chapel which we passed when entering. We will suppose that the day is drawing to a close, and the hour for vespers is come (5 o’clock of winters, 7 o’clock in the summertime), and so we pass in at the open door and take our seats quietly. The light is the light of sundown toned and hued by the stained-glass windows–a many-colored dusk at once softening and delicately illuminating. The service is in the same quiet spirit; it is without introduction, without formality; there is an organist playing–one who loves and understands the instrument; that is all. Those who attend may be a score, may be but two or three, or but one. It makes no difference; the organist plays the noble and beautiful music of the church, and the hearers enter and slip away quietly. Chapel services (never compulsory) are held of mornings; the vespers are daily, too. But all day long the doors of the little chapel are open; and whoever of the whole community there may be who wishes to withdraw from the world for a still and meditative hour, contemplating, perhaps, a reproduction of one of the world’s masterpieces of religious art (nowadays within the reach of all), finds here, in the cruciform chapel, the privilege of quiet and self-communion. And not only the elders come, but often the youth. For youth is a period when many solitary battles of the spirit must be fought through; when friends and teachers and parents are all helpless, and the boy must find his courage, the girl her strength, from other than human aid.

Perhaps night will have fallen when we emerge from the grateful quiet, and as we turn away we glance once more at the buildings we have explored. The frosted lamps under the porticoes that lead into the library and museum give them a more imposing beauty; while lighted windows show that both buildings are in full use. In the courtyard picturesque garden lanterns give a romantic charm, and there is already a sound of evening gaiety, for the folk are gathering. We look up, and we see that the stars are coming out, and we suspect that even now there is some eager star-gazer in the observatory, high over all. For all of us are star-gazers; and always there are Utopias; and the distance from earth to heaven is measured by a thought.