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Submitted Blueprints for Schmitt School stored in the Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives show that architect Harry Weese planned a fireplace in what started out to be a kindergarten classroom when he drew up designs for the school in 1956.
SCHMITT Elementary School kindergarten teacher Laura Coffman was understandably confused when she walked into her classroom for the first time and looked upon a large fireplace. There aren’t many classrooms that come equipped with fireplaces these days.
State fire regulations discourage them, according to Matt Noblitt, a spokesman for the Columbus Fire Department. “I’m sure the state has some pretty definite rules about that sort of thing,” he said.
Coffman surmised the same thing and began making inquiries among other staff members as to the origins of the fireplace. No one knew how or why it came to be. It had just always been there. No other room in the school had a fireplace. Matter of fact, it just might be the only school in Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. that does have a fireplace.
Her search became a quest that involved a number of people. Along the way, several pieces of history emerged that speak to how children have been educated throughout Bartholomew County history.
First of all, fireplaces were once a staple of local classrooms going back to the 19th and early 20th centuries, when they were common, especially in one-room schoolhouses.
In fact, wood-burning fireplaces were usually the only way to heat classrooms in those days, which goes a long way in explaining why we have so few wooden, one-room schoolhouses left. Many were consumed in flames, which often sprang from burning embers that had spilled out of a fireplace.
By 1956, when Chicago architect Harry Weese was commissioned to design a new school building on 27th Street in Columbus, the one-room schoolhouses were a thing of the past. So were classroom fireplaces.
The school named for a longtime educator, Lillian Schmitt, occupies a special place in local history. It was the first building to be commissioned under the Cummins Engine Co. Foundation’s architectural program.
The original design plans for Schmitt were discovered in the Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives by Rhonda Bolner, and sure enough, the fireplace was included in the designs for the kindergarten classroom.
Weese, who has designed a number of other buildings in Columbus, was a whimsical kind of architect who liked to incorporate people-friendly elements in his designs. As far as his Columbus buildings are concerned, fireplaces tend to have a special place.
Dody Harvey, who has been associated with architectural tours in Columbus for many years, pointed to fireplaces as common features in Otter Creek Clubhouse and the Hamilton Center Ice Arena, for instance.
The selection of Weese for the Schmitt project in the mid-1950s also coincided with a national educational movement that was to reshape how children are educated. The movement was centered on a school named Crow Island in Winnetka, Ill. One of its designers was Eero Saarinen, who is well-known around here for such masterpieces as North Christian Church, the former Irwin Union Bank building and the private home of J. Irwin and Xenia Miller.
Under the Crow Island philosophy, schools were designed to meet the individual needs of students.
“Each classroom had its own individual identity,” said John Quick, BCSC superintendent, last week. “No two were designed the same. Instead they were intended to make the students feel comfortable in their settings.”
Apparently Weese was a disciple of the Crow Island philosophy, and it shows in the different classrooms that make up the original Schmitt school.
“I imagine that the fireplace in the kindergarten class was an attempt to give the room a homey feeling,” Quick said. “In a way, you can almost consider that classroom as an embodiment of the old one-room schoolhouse.”
Some of the early kindergarten teachers at Schmitt shared that feeling about their classroom. Sharon Nelson, who taught kindergarten there beginning in 1975, recalled that the fireplace was used occasionally on cold days, especially following heavy snows.
“It was a large room, and the fireplace was very novel,” she remembered. “Having a fire in the fireplace gave the room a cozy feeling, and the children loved it. Now that I think back on it in light of how we regard such situations today, it might be considered something that we wouldn’t do, but people didn’t think that way back then.”
Coffman got similar results as she delved deeper into the mystery of the kindergarten fireplace. In conversations with Principal Brett Boezeman and an older teacher, she learned that the fireplace also was used for such things as staff Christmas parties.
Its day as a real fireplace ended several years ago. The chimney has long been capped. I suppose that might have taken away some of the coziness that it provided, maybe even some of the room’s individuality.
Still, teachers and students have been able to provide the room some individuality of their own. The fireplace has helped. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, Coffman’s young students hung brightly colored stockings from it.
Coziness is what one makes of it.
Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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