An Architectural Gem On the Auction Block

By Tom Mirga — November 08, 1989 7 min read

Next week, the River Valley School District in rural southwestern Wisconsin plans to put a surplus elementary school on the auction block.

Consolidation has made the 32-year-old Wyoming Valley School expendable. Rather than let it sit vacant, the school board has decided to use the profits from its sale to help keep up the district’s remaining buildings and grounds.

If all goes as district officials hope, it will be a long time before they have to worry again about their maintenance fund.

The elementary school that will go to the highest bidder on Nov. 16 is thought to be the only one in the nation designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, a long-time resident of the Wisconsin River community. And according to district officials, its sale could fetch the system as much as $500,000.

“I’d hate to see it go for less than $150,000,” said Michael Manning, the district’s superintendent. “That may be on the conservative end of it. We’ve been told that the price may range anywhere from $70,000 to half a million dollars. To be honest, I really don’t know how much it will go for.”

Linked to Consolidation

According to Mr. Manning, the economics of running a small rural school system make it necessary for the district to part with its architectural curiosity. The school was built in 1957 and remained in use until this year, when the district moved all of its elementary students into a new building in nearby Spring Green.

Ironically, the school traces its history to an earlier consolidation move in the community. Residents voted 71 to 60 in April 1956 to merge six small schools “and to construct a single elementary school, which would serve the needs of the 67 children concerned,” reported The Weekly Home News, the local newspaper.

The more recent consolidation drive was part of a long-range facilities plan that the board adopted in 1985, Mr. Manning explained. “We’ve already sold two elementary schools and a kindergarten, and we’re in the process of selling a third elementary school that was built in the late 1800’s,” he said.

“Frankly, we can use the revenues for capital projects and maintenance,” he continued. “There’s some sentiment among people here to see the building kept and maintained for historic reasons, and I have a feel for that. But over all, it’s no longer used as a school, it’s definitely a unique piece of property, and it’s my job to get the best possible price for it.”

Nonetheless, parting with the school will not be easy, Mr. Manning admitted.

“If I was going back into teaching, it’s where I’d like to be,” he said.

Smaller Is Better

Wright described his vision of the ideal public school in his book The Living City.

“Any culture center called a school in the universal city would be set in a natural park in the choicest part of the whole countryside, preferably by some flowing stream or large body of fresh water,” he wrote.

“The buildings themselves should be well designed and appointed not only as a whole, but so that ‘small’ may again be divided into smaller units insofar as possible,” Wright continued.

Further specifications, he said, 8should include: “Fireproof buildings fashioned of metals and glass or of other native materials all universally adapted to the uses of young life growing up in sunlight to cherish the ideals of freedom, love ground, love space, and enjoy light. Divided into small schools, each to contain, say, 25 children. Forty children would be a very large school. An outdoor game area and common dining hall or meeting room in common, a modeling and drafting room, a kitchen/dining room would be characteristic of them all.”

Building’s Design

The Wyoming Valley School--which is located about two miles from Taliesin East, Wright’s studio and home--apparently reflects many aspects of his ideal.

According to Richard Carney, the chief executive officer and managing trustee of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, the 4,700-square-foot building is situated on a 5.4-acre plot and includes two large classrooms with exposed oak beams overhead, an assembly room that seats 150, an adjoining kitchen, bathrooms, and a teachers’ room.

A wide hall that runs through the center of the structure features a fireplace with dual openings that face the classrooms and the the assembly hall. The floors are painted Wright’s signature color, Taliesin Red.

“The concrete block in the classrooms comes up about three feet, and the rest of the wall is made up of standard windows available in the 50’s,” Mr. Carney said. The walls, he noted, were designed to allow students to look out at the neighboring valley, hills, and farmland.

A clerestory running the length of the building brings in daylight from above and provides an additional view of the Wisconsin landscape.

Because the school board had limited resources, Wright designed the school to be built from materials “that could be bought at a typical lumberyard,” Mr. Carney noted. “He designed a very simple yet beautiful building.”

‘We Had To Cut Corners’

“They didn’t have much money,” recalled Marshall Erdman, the contractor who built the Wyoming Valley School and collaborated with Wright on several other projects. Shortly before embarking on the school project, the two combined to build the Unitarian Church in nearby Madison, which is among Wright’s most prominent designs.

“Whenever he did a job for a community, there always was a money crisis,” Mr. Erdman said. “We had to cut corners everywhere to build it. It was very simple and inexpensive. But that was the greatness of Wright. With simple things, his sense of scale made him the architect that he was.”

A Place Like Home

“When you see the building from the road, the main impression is glass,” Mr. Carney said. “You feel this a very open building.”

“It’s very warm, open, comfortable, and not engulfing,” added Mr. Manning. “With the fireplace in the foyer and assembly room, it feels very much like home.”

“Many adults remember hating to go to school, but I remember how much I liked to go,” said Leslie Graves, a Spring Green resident who attended the school from 1st through 6th grade. “Now as an adult going back, it’s easy to see why.”

Ms. Graves said her most vivid memories were of “the large banks of windows” that looked out at the cornfields and the forest, of the oak beams that spanned overhead, and of playing around the central fireplace.

Controversial Figure

According to Ms. Graves and Mr. Erdman, Wright was one of the driving forces behind the decision to build the school.

Ms. Graves said her grandfather, who managed Wright’s farm, had argued forcefully for the need to build a school in the community. Wright, meanwhile, also saw a need for a school for the children of his architecture students, Mr. Erdman said.

To spur the project along, Wright offered to design the building at no charge to the school board, and to pay all costs of construction in excess of $45,000. And in a controversial move, he also purchased 2 acres of land and donated them to the district to ensure an appropriate site for the structure.

“The land that the board had was only about 300 feet from the road,’' Mr. Erdman said. “Wright asked me to go out and lay out the site.”

“Well, I did the best that I could,” the contractor continued. “He came out to take a look and said, ‘This is terrible! The school belongs over there away from the road.”’

“I said that’s not the board’s land, but he said, ‘That’s of no consequence. No farmer is going to keep these kids from having a good location.”’

“So we went and started laying out the school in the farmer’s field,” Mr. Erdman said. “Pretty soon the farmer came out and asked us what we were doing. Wright told him, and offered to buy the land. And he did.”

The building’s public debut drew 1,200 visitors, according to an account of the event in The Home News.

“In the modern setting of the new school, there was one interlude that harked back to the old days,” the paper reported. “During the evening open house, a transformer blew, dropping complete darkness over the gathering.” Guests snacked on cheese, crackers, and cookies by candle and lantern light, and “the fireplace served as a good place to keep the coffee warm.”

Residents Raising Funds

Ms. Graves said the decision to sell the school “was inevitable.”

“After the decision to centralize, there were only two options: keep the building and let it stay empty and crumble, or sell it,” she said. “It’s too bad, but that’s the way it worked out.”

Ms. Graves and about two dozen other community residents, however, hope to keep the school as community resource. Recently, they formed a tax-exempt foundation that is trying to raise funds to bid on the building.

“We’ve written a prospectus and mailed it out to people who are large contributors to the local theater, to people who are wealthy and have expressed an interest in Wright, and to local businesses,” she said. “We hope there is someone friendly out there who will agree to keep it open as a community center.”

Mr. Manning, meanwhile, said the district has already been contacted by several prospective bidders. Some said they envisioned using the building as a residence, a restaurant, a museum, or a private school.

“It’s going to be very interesting on Nov. 16,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the November 08, 1989 edition of Education Week as An Architectural Gem On the Auction Block