Chorley School: A Historical Narrative

Posted by Middletown City Schools on 5/4/2016

Chorley School 1968-'69, <br/>Photo Credit: Enlarged City School District, Middletown
Chorley School 1968-'69; Photo Credit:
Enlarged City School District Middletown

Middletown, New York was once home to the John W. Chorley Elementary School. Named after Middletown High School’s beloved vice principal John W. Chorley, the elementary school was built between 1964-1969. The new school building was created by noted architect Paul Rudolph and embodied many of his design principals.

The modern “brutalist” style that Rudolph designed the building in became antiquated over a forty year time period. Many in the Middletown community did not fully appreciate the architectural merits of the building as Rudolph envisioned them. In 2013, despite the attempts of preservationists, the John W. Chorley Elementary School was torn down. Although the John W. Chorley Elementary School is no longer standing, it is important to keep the history of the building and its architecture documented for future generations.

 

The Need for a New School

In the 1960’s a need arose in the Enlarged City School District of Middletown, NY for a new elementary school. There were nine elementary school buildings at the time that housed approximately 3050 students.1 Many of the nine school buildings were considered antiquated and inadequate for the 1960’s. They did not provide enough classrooms for the growing student body. The basements in many of the schools were converted into classrooms due to the lack of additional space. The cafeterias frequently became overcrowded and students were often forced to eat lunch elsewhere. The Enlarged City School District of Middletown decided that the best course of action was to build a new elementary school that would provide plenty of space and room for growth. A new, larger building would allow for students to spend their entire elementary school experience in one location. The school district required a new building that would function as a continuous progress plan school, and house the growing student body.

New Teaching Theory

In 1964 the Enlarged City School District of Middletown, NY started to use a new educational program called the continuous progress plan. This plan was developed with the understanding that not every student learns at the same pace. It called for eliminating grade levels that were considered restrictive of personal growth. The plan aimed to create an atmosphere where students wanted to learn because they considered the work important. It was believed that this school setting enabled children to have more self-confidence and develop a more accepting view of others.2

The plan believed that standards for children should be based on their individual potential, as opposed to having the same standards for every child. There were no grade levels in the plan; therefore children were not necessarily assigned to a certain group for a year. Children of a similar age were assigned to groups based off of previous achievements. They would proceed at their own pace and move from group to group depending on their individual learning speed. If a student was performing above their group level, they did not have to wait a full year to be promoted to a higher-level group. This allowed for more flexibility than following the structure of grade levels. Teachers were expected to carefully study the children in their groups and plan lessons both individually and in a team with other faculty members.

The Enlarged City School District of Middletown, NY began implementing the continuous progress plan before a new school was built.3 They realized that the current elementary school buildings were not necessarily conducive to the new educational program. Due to the continuous progress plan, inadequate buildings, and the need for additional classrooms, the school district decided to construct an entirely new elementary school. They were looking to commission an architect who would be able to meld the continuous progress approach with an architectural philosophy that represented this new way of thinking as well as the school’s functional needs. This led them to choose one of the most well-known and prestigious architects of the time, Paul Rudolph.

Paul Rudolph

Paul Rudolph was one of the most distinguished and well-known architects of post-World War II America. Rudolph began his architectural studies at Alabama Polytechnic Institute and graduated in 1940 with a full scholarship to attend Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Before attending Harvard, Rudolph took a year off and worked in Florida with Ralph Twitchell to design modernist residences in Sarasota, Florida. After his year in Florida, and during World War 2, Rudolph studied architecture under Walter Gropius at Harvard University and supervised ship construction as a Navy lieutenant in the Brooklyn Navy Yards. After the war, Rudolph went back to Florida and became Ralph Twitchell’s associate, and later partner in 1950. Rudolph is well known for his Florida houses that embody the optimism of post-war America. His use of wartime materials such as plastic and plywood in his designs was seen as groundbreaking.

After Rudolph’s partnership with Twitchell ended, he started his own firm and began to teach at a number of architectural schools across the country. In 1958 Rudolph was appointed chairman of Yale University’s Department of Architecture. Rudolph transformed the department and made it one of the best places in the country to study architecture. By the 1960’s Rudolph consolidated his architectural practice to New Haven, Connecticut. At this time, Rudolph was becoming well known for his “brutalist” structures including many of the commissions he received on Yale’s campus and around the city of New Haven. Some of these buildings included the Greeley Laboratory, Yale Art and Architecture Building, Temple Street Parking Garage, and Yale Married Student Housing. Rudolph was turning away from the steel and glass of the International Style and more towards concrete due to its ability to be easily shaped.

Fluted Block; Photo Credit: Enlarged City School District Middletown
Fluted Block; Photo Credit:
Enlarged City School District Middletown

Rudolph saw concrete as a material that could provide modern decoration on the exterior of his buildings. Completely ornamenting buildings with a material that provided shadows, due to the pattern, and shining areas, due to the aggregate, added complexity to his designs. Rudolph’s new interest in the ability of concrete to provide modern decoration was influenced by concrete buildings he had seen in Japan, and Le Corbusier’s India projects. The goal of Rudolph’s architecture in the 1960’s was to manipulate objects, color, and space in order to affect people. By 1963 Rudolph was working on a number of government, academic, and corporate projects. He sought corporate commissions including skyscrapers, but wasn’t successful in obtaining them. During this time Rudolph worked on large projects including the Mental Health Building, Southeastern Massachusetts Technological Institute, Crawford Manor, Charles A. Dana Creative Arts Center, and Oriental Masonic Gardens.

Rudolph’s “brutalist” designs were heavily critiqued during the Vietnam-war era, leading to his decline in popularity. The 1969 fire that ruined the interior of the Yale A & A Building was believed to have been an act of protest from the students against what many of them saw as an oppressive style of architecture. During the 1970’s and 1980’s Rudolph’s architectural practice declined and he faded out of the spotlight. Before passing away in 1997, Rudolph designed residences, apartments, and high-rise buildings in Southeast Asia. It wasn’t until the twenty-first century, when postwar modernism had a resurgence, that Rudolph’s designs became widely appreciated again.4

How Does the Chorley School Fit into Rudolph’s Career?

The John W. Chorley Elementary School in Middletown, NY was representative of the work Paul Rudolph was commissioned to build during the 1960’s. During this time, Rudolph had become one of the most popular and sought after architects in America. Rudolph himself did not have time to design every one of his commissions. In 1962 he developed a system for design and construction that could easily be followed by other architects in his practice. This system drew upon an approach other contemporary colleges were taking; they had integrated ground floor arcades connecting all of the buildings along a mall, creating the impression of one large building. Rudolph used the same material for essentially all of his buildings at the time: a rectangular 8 ½ by 16-inch concrete block. This new material, called fluted block, was developed after the realization that corrugated concrete was too expensive for new, often publicly funded, commissions. The fluted block was factory-made and featured semicircular raised ridges. Some of the commissions this block was used at include the Oriental Masonic Gardens, Crawford Manor, and the John W. Chorley Elementary School.

The John W. Chorley Elementary School followed many of Rudolph’s 1960’s design principals and exhibited new elements. Rudolph began to question the predictability of approaches to urban renewal and campus design. Therefore, he began to infuse his designs with a stenographic quality by adding staircases and balconies influenced by baroque architecture. In his design for the Southeastern Massachusetts Technological Institute, Rudolph used linear design and angular spaces to stimulate students and help them to engage in the place and each other. Rudolph, who also had an interest in landscape design, played with the topographical aspects of a building site. At the Southeastern Massachusetts Technological Institute he moved and molded the earth to suit his design, and at the Oriental Masonic Gardens he created informal building groupings that related to the sites natural slope. The use of fluted block, linear forms, amphitheater-like classrooms, and a design that was integrated into the landscape could all be seen in the design for the John W. Chorley Elementary School.

Design for the New School

Classroom; Photo Credit: Enlarged City School District Middletown
Classroom; Photo Credit:
Enlarged City School District Middletown

Paul Rudolph designed the John W. Chorley Elementary School to accommodate not only the continuous progress plan, but also possible future instructional techniques. He aimed to create a domestic atmosphere that was meant to give students a sense of comfort and flexibility. The design of the school followed the natural slope of the 27-acre property it was built on. The building moved up the slope with instructional wings, staggered along a central linear hallway. It was naturally lit by saw-tooth clerestory windows and was reminiscent of factory buildings along the Hudson River. There were four wings with 37 instructional spaces. The building primarily consisted of concrete fluted block, cement wood fiber panels, glass, and steel. Construction began in 1964 and ended in 1969 with a total of 77,335 square feet and a final cost of $2,195,000.5

Chorley Blueprint  

The school combined flexible grouping with cooperative team teaching. Each wing of the building held a different grouping level. These levels consisted of Primary I, for grades kindergarten through second, Primary II, for grades three and four, Intermediate, for grades five and six, and special education. There were operable walls in each wing allowing for different uses of space. This allowed for the space to possibly be divided into eight separate classrooms. When all the operable walls were open, the wing would be one large space. Each wing held up to two hundred students, eight teachers, and an instructional leader. The combination of teachers and students made up what was called a teaching-learning team. The group size of the students would vary depending on the objective of the lesson the teachers decided to teach. Chorley Blueprint, Wings One, Two & Three Chorley Blueprint, Wing Four The teachers would plan lessons together and then divide responsibilities according to their students needs. The wings of the building opened up a large number of teaching possibilities and allowed for the flexible grouping of students.

The first three wings of the building had a teachers’ planning center and functioned with the operable walls in place. Each had an exterior entrance with a small covered area outside that acted as an extension of the classroom. The fourth wing of the building was used for both educable and trainable classes. This wing was the only one with permanent walls between the classrooms. It had a housekeeping area that was meant to simulate a house. This section of the wing was shared with all of the students in the building. Gym; Photo Credit: Enlarged City School District Middletown Other than instructional or training areas, the school housed a large number of other amenities essential to the growth of its students. There were two gyms, locker and shower rooms, physical education room, music room, music practice rooms, learning adjustment classroom, instructional materials center, audiovisual room, and a cafeteria. Cafeteria; Photo Credit: Enlarged City School District Middletown
It also housed administrative offices, medical and dental room, guidance and speech correction room, and three play areas. All of these amenities allowed for the John W. Chorley Elementary School to be one of the most modern and progressive schools in the area.

Left: Cafeteria; Above: Gym; Photo Credit: Enlarged City School District Middletown

After Construction

When the John W. Chorley Elementary School was constructed, it was considered contemporary and innovative. Many people in the Middletown, NY Enlarged School District believed that it would serve the community for many years to come. At the schools dedication in 1969, the superintendent of schools, John L. Krause wrote, “Let us hope that forty years hence people will be commenting favorably on the foresight of this community during the ‘60’s”.6 Unfortunately, forty years later the building was facing the threat of demolition. In 2008 voters passed a referendum to acquire additional property to build a new, larger, technologically updated elementary school, neighboring the existing school, with a provision to demolish the John W. Chorley Elementary School. The provision called for the Chorley School to be replaced by a parking lot that would serve the new school building. In an effort to promote its preservation, the Preservation League of New York added the John W. Chorley School to its 2010 “Seven to Save” list of endangered places in New York. The building served as a school until its demolition in 2013.

The school combined flexible grouping with cooperative team teaching. Each wing of the building held a different grouping level. These levels consisted of Primary I, for grades kindergarten through second, Primary II, for grades three and four, Intermediate, for grades five and six, and special education. There were operable walls in each wing allowing for different uses of space. This allowed for the space to possibly be divided into eight separate classrooms. When all the operable walls were open, the wing would be one large space. Each wing held up to two hundred students, eight teachers, and an instructional leader. The combination of teachers and students made up what was called a teaching-learning team. The group size of the students would vary depending on the objective of the lesson the teachers decided to teach. The teachers would plan lessons together and then divide responsibilities according to their students needs. The wings of the building opened up a large number of teaching possibilities and allowed for the flexible grouping of students.

Exterior Facing Southwest; Photo Credit: Enlarged City School District Middletown
Exterior Facing Southwest; Photo Credit:
Enlarged City School District Middletown

Prepared by Johnson-Schmidt and Associates, Preservation Architects
Authors: Stephanie Kraut, Hannah Little, Elise Johnson-Schmidt

1 Robert G. Scanlon, A Preliminary Report of Classroom Needs for 1964-1965, (Middletown, NY: Compiled from Official Records of The Board of Education, 1964), Page 1.

2 Office of Educational Research and the Department of Elementary Education, Continuous Progress School, (New York, NY: Educational Facilities Laboratories, 1966), Page 1.

3 Dr. John L. Krause, David Trachtenberg, Penelope S. Chachis, Educational Program Requirements, (Middletown, NY: Compiled from Official Records of the Board of Education, 1969), Page 1.

4 Timothy M. Rohan, The Architecture of Paul Rudolph, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014). 

5  Penelope S. Chachis, David Trachtenberg, Robert C. Walther, John W. Chorley Elementary School, (Middletown, NY: Board of Education, 1969), Page 6.

6  Penelope S. Chachis, David Trachtenberg, Robert C. Walther, John W. Chorley Elementary School, (Middletown, NY: Board of Education, 1969), Page 1.