Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Public buildings such as schools, libraries, city halls, and courthouses are the physical embodiment of pride, stability, and cultural enlightenment. They functionally acknowledge and aesthetically symbolize the foundations of civil life in a community.

The need for universal public education was well established by the time immigrants began to settle the Great Plains. At that time a basic knowledge of reading, writing, and elementary arithmetic was considered a sufficient minimum. Facilities to accommodate these requirements were generally very modest, often temporary structures built by the fledgling communities utilizing indigenous materials such as logs, sod, and even baled hay. Few of these early buildings survive.

During the frontier period many school buildings were barely suitable for educational functions, due primarily to a lack of design and building expertise. Consequently, educational reformers focused attention upon rectifying common deficiencies in illumination, heating, sanitation, and furnishings by developing design guidelines and creating standardized plans. At the same time, state and provincial governments began to assert their influence upon the design of school buildings.

One of the earliest and most basic purposebuilt designs for education was the one-room schoolhouse. A small rectangular structure with a gable roof, it became a ubiquitous feature of the rural Plains landscape. Based upon a common plan, the vast majority were of wood-frame construction, although some were constructed of brick or stone where available. Likewise, many medium-size schools were based upon standardized plans. Characteristically rectangular in configuration, many of these buildings were organized around a central hall flanked by several rooms and accommodating stairs to a basement and upper floor. Exterior composition was typically symmetrical, with emphasis upon vertical proportions, the latter frequently accentuated by a central tower. Popular Victorian styles considered appropriate for schools at this time included Italianate, Second Empire, and Romanesque. By the turn of the century the formal classical styles were widely favored for their more pretentious symbolism and distinctive monumental character.

During the early decades of the twentieth century, preparation of the citizenry for an increasingly complex society transformed the mission and magnitude of education. More sophisticated school subtypes evolved to satisfy new educational requirements, ranging from the nursery school to the junior high school and vocational high school. Specialuse rooms were required for instruction in science, fine and performing arts, physical education, home economics, and vocational training. The compact but rather confining rectangular plan of earlier years gave way to increasingly flexible T-shaped and courtyard plans. The elevations of these more complex configurations accommodated a variety of stylistic variations, including the Late Gothic Revival, which was popularly associated with educational buildings ranging from grade schools to collegiate institutions.

The architectural character of schools in the Great Plains continued to evolve after World War II, paralleling changes in educational philosophy, technology, and design. Elementary and high schools were typically sited on tracts of land large enough to accommodate generous playgrounds and outdoor athletic facilities. Their designs were characterized by openspace planning, spreading classroom wings, and clearly articulated special-use facilities. Designs in the 1950s and 1960s were distinctly modern, emphasizing efficiency and displaying a functional, almost industrial image. Glass curtain walls, simple brick facades, and flat roofs were characterizing features that were used extensively.

School design in recent decades features a return to subtle historical references in material usage and decorative details, a utilization of the latest advances in building technology, plans based on the concept of learning communities, and an increasingly sensitive response to environmental issues. On the other hand, shifting rural and suburban populations and obsolescent educational facilities have resulted in the closing of many older school buildings and their conversion to offices and housing.

An interest in establishing libraries also accompanied immigrants to the Great Plains. Small collections of books were housed wherever unused space was available such as the rear of a store or the corner of a church basement. These modest collections were frequently the property of local citizens such as women's groups whose goal was to improve the cultural climate of the community. The greatest momentum for founding public libraries in the region occurred between the 1890s and World War I.

After the turn of the century the Carnegie Foundation provided funding and stimulated the construction of many libraries in the Great Plains region of Canada and the United States. In 1911 the foundation published a set of design standards for these libraries. The favored scheme was a rectangular, one-story building set on a raised basement and entered from a small vestibule. The Carnegie Endowment program placed almost no restrictions on exterior design, but the overwhelming majority exhibited the influence of classicism, which gained widespread popularity following the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.

Prior to World War II, library design was characterized by a bias for monumentality, modest attention paid to function, and meager consideration given to future expansion. After 1950 the use of fixed book stacks and walls gave way to a more spatially open, functionally flexible, and user-friendly design. In recent decades the information explosion, new technology, provision for the handicapped, and population growth have forced additional changes upon libraries. In larger cities the main downtown library may be retained, but new satellite branches are being constructed in the suburbs. The exterior appearance of these new buildings varies considerably, partially due to changing attitudes regarding the symbolism considered appropriate for a contemporary public building. Monumentality, once very much in favor for civic architecture, has given way to an imagery that is less formal and imposing. Common interior features include innovations in illumination, environmental control, and flexibility in the functional use of space.

Governmental buildings made their appearance early in the settlement of the Great Plains. In Canada the municipal building, or town hall, was the primary symbol of government after the provincial capitol. Sparsely populated rural communities and townships constructed small, unimposing structures that accommodated only the most basic functions of local government, but by the end of the nineteenth century the largest Plains towns were erecting monumental city halls following European precedents. In addition to providing for governmental activities such as a council chamber, offices, and courtroom, many city halls also housed a public auditorium for cultural events and a variety of additional civic amenities.

In the United States the county courthouse emerged as the most important symbol of government, second only to the state capitol. It was commonly believed that a building displaying a dignified and monumental character was appropriate for the transaction of county business, security of public records, and administration of justice. The courthouse commanded a place of honor in the town plan and typically occupied a full city block. One of the most distinctive spatial arrangements features the courthouse in the midst of the business district surrounded on four sides by commercial buildings. Status within the anonymous grid was also achieved by siting the building on a hill or at the end of a prominent street or vista.

The function of the courthouse changed little during the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, during which time the spatial arrangement tended to follow a distinctive pattern. offices for the daily business of elected officials were usually located within a rectangular plan, the more significant activities being located on a raised first floor and the remainder placed in the basement. The second floor accommodated the most important public space, the courtroom, and related functions.

Nineteenth-century governmental buildings revealed evidence of the prevailing Victorian styles, including the Italianate and Second Empire. The Gothic style was quite popular in Canada but seldom utilized in the United States due to its religious connotations and the desire to separate church and state. During the 1880s the round arch, or Romanesque, style was widely favored for its solid, dignified appearance. The overwhelming majority of governmental buildings built between the turn of the century and the 1930s exhibit the influence of classicism.

Since World War II many city halls and county courthouses have been remodeled or replaced. The design of new governmental buildings tends to be significantly affected by functional and economic factors. In contrast to the pride and optimism expressed in much traditional civic architecture, the scale and imagery of many contemporary governmental buildings resemble the sobriety and efficiency characteristic of today's utilitarian office blocks.

See also EDUCATION: One-Room Schoolhouses.

Keith Sawyers University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Kalman, Harold D. A History of Canadian Architecture. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Maddex, Diane, ed. Built in the U.S.A.: American Buildings from Airports to Zoos. Washington DC: Preservation Press, 1985.

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