Friday, March 11, 2016

If Walls Could Talk

Some mornings I wake up to imagine I hear car and camera calling me to join them for another Kansas road trip. Coffee mug in its holder and hands at 10 and 2 on the wheel, I’m ready to explore dusty roads and fading communities along rural highways designed to knit together regions of our state. These journeys   help me appreciate hardy souls who built homes, businesses, churches, and schools with their hard-earned cash. Early pioneers had no access to federal or state-funding modern residents take for granted. As a retired teacher, I’m drawn to aged academic buildings like iron filings to a magnet.

Lately, I’ve visited a number of dilapidated towns to photograph deteriorating schools before they vanish from the landscape. Local historical societies have pictures of these brick wonders in their glory days, but I want to record the moments before they return to dust. Something about a once elegant structure in crumbling ruins captures my imagination more completely than reading old yearbook essays does.

Certainly, I feel nostalgic as I ramble around foundations to sense the layout of classrooms, auditoriums, and gymnasiums. Even more than a longing for a less complicated, slower-paced existence, I ache for that time when people incorporated handcrafted details to beautify a simple public building. Almost every one of these deteriorating edifices is exactly that—an edifice.  In a region distant from specialty guilds and artisans, who would complain about city leaders assembling unassuming structures with no embellishments? Visit these ruins, and it’s clear that is not what happened.

Many of the red brick establishments that remain were the community’s second or third school. Oftentimes, initial coursework took place in either a local home or dugout. As soon as a settlement developed sufficiently to afford new construction, workers erected out of wood or native stone two or three stories that each contained only one or two classrooms. Photos reveal modest playgrounds and necessary houses either to the side or behind these schools. What you see in these black and white photographs is pure function. Ornament is missing.

By the late teens through the thirties, communities along the Union Pacific and Missouri Pacific Railroads optimistic about continued growth and financial success raised new schools. Many featured then-popular Art Deco details. Those characteristics included angular brick walls with inlaid bands of vertical brick and a flat roof. They often display decorative geometric panels, vertical towers, stepped piers, and casement windows. A few regal antiques have beautiful arched, multi-paned windows above hand-carved entrance doors. One regional building still displays distinctive scroll-shaped lights on either side of its double doors. Just walking through such an entryway to reach class would add intent to a youngster’s studies.

Over decades, trucks and highways replaced railroads, resulting in a declining rural population. Decades later in the 60s, school consolidation forced closure of too many architectural masterpieces. In a few locations, individuals bought old buildings and turned them into homes or businesses. Unfortunately, too often, time and lack of maintenance resulted in unsalvageable eyesores. As bricks crumble , I hope families and museums publish their old school’s stories.

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