Monday, July 25, 2011


Change the name, and any Baby Boomer would recognize my old grade school, Crawford Village Elementary. It was one of those flat-roofed, single-story jobs with parallel rows of classroom wings, all linked together by covered outdoor halls edged with pipe columns. At the main entrance was a barren, concrete-paved quadrangle with a flagpole; beyond was an auditorium known--as it was in all such schools--as the Multi-Purpose Room. Inside it were ranks of long lunch tables that folded neatly into the walls, a wardrobe filled with Traffic Patrol uniforms, and an elevated stage. In this vast, asphalt-tiled room, redolent with the smell of countless cafeteria lunches, we were gathered to watch the Bell Labs epic “Our Mr. Sun” at least once a year.   

Thousands of schools just like Crawford Village were built across America from the late Forties through the mid-Sixties to handle the postwar baby boom. Known as “finger plan” schools because of their parallel rows of classrooms, their design was pioneered by the noted architect Ernest Kump (1912-1999). Kump’s first finger plan design, Acalanes High School in Lafayette, California, was enormously influential, and served as a prototype for public schools of all levels well into the Sixties.  

Kump’s basic finger plan scheme could be easily adjusted to a variety of sites--a fact that delighted architects scrambling to keep up with the era’s boom in school-building. As it happened, I eventually served my internship with Reynolds & Chamberlain, one of the four associated firms that designed Crawford Village and dozens of California schools like it during the 1950s. One of the principals used to joke that when he received another school commission, he’d simply take out the same old drawings and change the name of the school on the title sheet.  Although it wasn’t quite that simple, there was more than a passing resemblance among these designs.

Typical of finger plan schools, the classrooms at Crawford Village had a whole wall of windows facing north and a high clearstory that peeked over the hallway roof on the south. The entirety of the room’s artificial light came from six curious ceiling lamps with Saturn-like rings surrounding a silvered bulb. The ceilings and the upper part of the walls were covered in perforated acoustical tile whose holes made a challenging target for pencil-stub projectiles.  

Only in retrospect have I come to appreciate the ingenuity of these schools, whose ubiquitous traits grew out of the need to accomodate a rising flood of schoolkids as quickly and efficiently as possible. The buildings were built on inexpensive concrete slab foundations, with wood-framed walls rendered in stucco; their outdoor corridors obviated walls altogether. The width of those long, narrow “fingers” of classrooms was quite simply determined by the distance a 2x12 roof joist could span.  

Hot water pipes for radiant heating were embedded in the floor slabs, avoiding attics full of ductwork, while still keeping students toasty in winter. The tall walls of north-facing glass gave diffuse daylighting, while those peculiar lamps served to bounce light onto the ceiling, from whence it was evenly reflected to the desktops.  

Today, with the Baby Boom just a fading playground echo, large numbers of the old finger plan schools have been closed, demolished, or converted to other uses. In a sign of the times, Crawford Village Elementary has become a retraining school for adults.  Although the paint scheme has changed and the classrooms are now jammed with computers, somehow I suspect these new students still feel right at home, waiting for that clock up in the corner to tick oh-so-loudly to the school day’s end.

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