known in Pontiac as one of the founders of the present (c. 1912) public school system, and as a man who has probably done more than any other one person to establish that system, which is one of the most admirable and efficient in the state today… He was county superintendent of schools for a number of years, has been a member of the board of supervisors [secretary and president] and a member of the board of public works of Pontiac, while for many years he was one of the trustees of the schools of the city.
Webster School was welcomed by the community with great acclaim, as was captured in the November 7, 1926 issue of the Detroit Free Press, “‘New Pontiac School Ranks with Finest’ –The new Elmer Webster school is one of the attractive educational units of the Pontiac School system.”
Webster School illustrates and embodies the general education trends of early twentieth-century Michigan. As a result of the Standardization Movement during this period, elementary schools began to have a standardized form, function, and program. Although Michigan did not require specific designs for its education facilities, An Honor and an Ornament states that “by the 1920s, school buildings had become a very recognizable building type, in no small way due to the national and local dialogues on the desirability of standard layouts and appearance.” The selected architecture firm, Perkins, Fellows and Hamilton, specialized in school design, was highly accomplished and regarded in the Midwest, and significantly contributed to said dialogues regarding design of the modern public school building.
About The Architects:
Webster School stands out as Pontiac’s only extant example of school architecture designed by Perkins, Fellows and Hamilton – an architecture firm (most notably Perkins), whose style and approach toward design was well known, and influenced contemporary and future peers. Their technical and aesthetic achievements embodied in this school building reveal, as Peter Wight wrote in Architectural Record, “evidence of the progressive spirit and independent thought that have characterized the work of a large number of Chicago architects” during the early twentieth century.
In 1905, again with support from Burnham, Perkins was appointed as the architect of the Chicago Board of Education. To the position, he brought his progressive spirit and sense of humanity. Perkins believed that these buildings served as holistic community centers. As such, he located auditoriums on the first floor to make them more accessible for after-hours functions. He also sought to improve upon difficulties in the way that the earlier schools functioned by widening stairwells and hallways to minimize crowding and provide clear and safe means of navigating through the building; creating bathrooms on every floor (typically, the only toilet rooms in the older schools were located in the basements); and maximizing the amount of natural light in the classrooms with plentiful, large windows and skylights when possible. Perkins sited buildings so that classrooms would face either east or west, to avoid relying only on sunlight from the south. Also, most older schools were built close to the edge of the street, resulting in very few have playgrounds at all. As an advocate for open space, Perkins prioritized such spaces around schools, recommending larger setbacks, landscape improvements, and ample playground space. All of these design elements were also implemented at Webster School, embodying Perkins’ philosophies.
Perkins recognized the evolving educational needs and trends and responded by “translating into reality the progressive ideal of the public school as a community center.” His contributions to the national architectural dialogue regarding the design of modern public school buildings continued with articles that appeared in the December 1915 and January 1916 issues of The Brickbuilder. These articles were part of a series that he titled, “The School Building as a Social Center.” In the December article, he stated:
The modern school problem requires the architect to plan a structure which is in itself a neighborhood or social center for daytime use by children. At the same time, he automatically plans a social center building for adults to be used in the evening. There is no essential difference between the two [except in] … the size of the furniture… The school, by its relation to all of the people, regardless of divisions of politics, religion, or wealth, is the only institution which can be made to serve as a neighborhood or social center. It alone is possessed by all the people… At the same time it gives to the architect the greatest opportunity for display of his talents of any type of modern building for which there is great and increasing demand.
Exerpts Taken from the Historic Preservation Application Part 1, submitted by Hopkins Burns Design Studio