Old School

Sometime back I became interested in learning a little more about our family’s heritage. Not quite a deep-dive into research genealogy but something more akin to a survey of the places we had lived, the homes and schools we attended. Along the way, the faded photographs my Mother had saved of her childhood prompted me to try and find her homes and schools.

Mom was born in Colorado and before moving to Southern California (where my own family’s story begins) she and her growing family lived in Colorado Springs, Colorado. When they moved, my Grandfather’s Aunt Belle wrote in her journal at the time “Quite an undertaking with the car, trailer, six children, goat with two kids, canary bird, and cat and dog.”  

The photo of children sitting with my Grandfather Orlo Willis in front of a small home launched my search for the house and school they had attended in the 1930s. Were those buildings still standing? Or had they been demolished only to be replaced by larger and more modern structures?

My Grandfather Orlo Willis with Mom and siblings, 1930

Not to my surprise, Mom remembered the street address of their home and the elementary school they had walked to. The 1930 census, available online, confirmed their street address. A quick search on Google maps revealed that the home is still standing, while further searching on Zillow showed pictures of a “charming Victorian home” built in 1892.

An online search for photos of the original school building came up empty but I did come across a fascinating website, http://coloradopreservation.org

Writing about their mission, the organization began as “43 citizens interested in preserving (their) state’s built heritage started this organization to encourage preservation efforts statewide.” An email requesting information on the elementary school was answered cordially but proved fruitless. However that lead me to finding a small publication, surprisingly available through Amazon, entitled “A History of the Colorado Springs School District 11”, by Harriet Seibel, published in 1975, with quite a bit of information regarding the school I was hunting.

The two story brick building was originally constructed in 1898 with additions coming in later years. It was torn down and replaced with a single-story building 74 years later in 1972. No doubt infrastructure problems (heating and cooling, electrical wiring) contributed to the decision to replace rather than renovate. However, knowing that the school had been rebuilt, Google supplied the address and contact information of the school’s Principal, who forwarded my request for information on to the school’s Library Technology Director. He was kind enough to send me several photos of the old Columbia School as well as photos as it exists today.

But what has happened with those schools built in the early years of Reno where I grew up? This summer on a visit home with family, I drove by all four of the schools I had attended. And surprisingly they are all still in use! All of them were built around the same time, from Greenbrae Elementary in 1955 to Wooster High School in 1962. They all share similar characteristics of mid century modern design: single-story concrete block construction, small windows, flat roofs with protective overhang. Most are devoid of any ornamentation and look like they were designed to last for generations.

Washoe County School District published “A History of Schools from Past to Present,” with detailed information and a photograph of nearly all the schools built in the area, from 1955 until 2012. Several schools have since been opened, but the comprehensive list builds on an earlier list compiled by Rose Bullis of schools built from 1857-1912.

Reno has several school buildings of great historical and architectural interest that are still standing. One of the oldest schools built, Mary Lee Nichols Elementary School in Sparks, was built in 1917 and is still in use today as a commercial building. Robert Mitchell Elementary School in Sparks NV was rebuilt in 1937 as a single story brick building. The art modern building, still in use today, is a far cry from the original two story structure that had been built in 1906. The original multi-story building bears a striking resemblance to my mother’s elementary school: both share the same style of imposing brick edifice that was later replaced by one story buildings. (photos from 4th Street Prater Way Project)

Writing about the superiority of the smaller building style, “State Superintendent of Public Instruction reported to the Nevada Legislature in 1915 that mission architecture was chosen as it “is especially adapted to one-story buildings,” and he added “there is nothing better for school purposes than one-story buildings. The one-story plan eliminates the stair climbing so destructive to the nervous strength of pupils and teachers, and also renders danger from fire impossible.” (from Renohistorical.org) Reno built four of the Spanish Mission-style schools between 1910-12, two of which remain standing, one used as a school today (Mount Rose School)

Have you had any success in tracking down your family’s schools? I would guess that few remain from the early part of the 20th century unless they had a committed group of individuals determined to keep the buildings open, either as schools or repurposed as office space or commercial sites. In the case of the Nichols School, the fact that it was designed by Nevada’s premier architect Frederic DeLongchamps went a long way in securing its future. A 2002 Registration Form was filed with the Unites States Depart of the Interior, National Park Service, to place the Mary Lee Nichols School in Sparks on the National Register of Historic Places reads in part “Mary Lee Nichols School is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places under criterion A for its role in the educational history of Sparks, Nevada, and criterion C as an excellent example of a modest educational building designed by Nevada’s pre-eminent architect Frederic DeLongchamps in the Mission architectural style.”

Any number of the schools recently opened look like they will stand the test of time, but as we all know…only time will tell.

Mary Lee Nichols Elementary School was built in 1917 and though smaller, it shared the more modest mission-style of Reno’s Four Sisters. (photo credit)

One thought on “Old School

  1. Hi Ron, I found a history of local schools in Western PA that my great-grandfather sporadically attended. As I read through it, it turned out that a number of teachers had studied at Grove City College (PA) which is my alma mater and donated the book to their library. Thanks for this post.

    Liked by 1 person

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