When it was dedicated in 1960, the modernist design of Mabel McDowell Elementary School clashed with prevailing attitudes about how institutions of learning should look.
Instead of an imposing monolithic block, McDowell invited its young charges into a cluster of one-story buildings with residential-style roofs, large windows and trellised
Architect John Carl Warnecke wanted the scale to be intimate so small children would feel comfortable — rather than be intimidated by crowded and closed-in spaces, said Jim Funk, a principal of CSO Architects in Indianapolis.
The complex consists of a courtyard with four buildings — offices, a cafeteria and instruction space — at each of its four major compass points. Set apart from the main structure, positioned at each of four corners of a square, are four “pods” of three classrooms each, connected to the central building via covered walkways. The pods allowed for students of similar age to receive instruction in small areas and kept them away from older students.
Through the trellises and covered walkways, Warnecke, of San Francisco, added some “California flair,” Funk said, because he wanted people to walk outside instead of being cooped up inside all day. And, Funk said, natural light filtering into the classroom fosters student achievement.
The whole building was ahead of its time, Funk said.
To further enhance the students’ connection to the outside, each of the 12 square classrooms featured two full sides of floor-to-ceiling windows to maximize the amount of natural light and the students’ views of the lawns and sycamore trees.
The cluster, with its separate buildings, also mimicked the Indiana farmscape, said Andrea Quick, principal of what is now known as McDowell Education Center.
And, Quick said, although the school’s mission has changed, the campus-like feel, the large windows and natural light lend themselves to the school’s current occupants, who include adults, students with children and other nontraditional students.
Some of the school’s current students dislike large buildings with crowded hallways, but they enjoy McDowell’s open design, she said.
The school in 2001 was named a National Historic Landmark, identified as a nationally significant historic place that possesses exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States. Fewer than 2,500 historic places bear this national distinction. Of the city’s seven landmarks, McDowell is the only school and the only landmark that is owned by the public.
According to the Landmarks nomination letter, the school was well received by the community and improved its neighborhood. The letter also quoted a section from the city’s comprehensive plan of 1967: “It is interesting to note that in the area ... considerable upgrading has occurred since the opening of McDowell School in 1961. This example of private rehabilitation should not go unnoticed. It represents the inestimable aftermath of a public improvement and should provide food for thought to physical and social planners alike.”
Many of the building’s features have remained unchanged for more than 60 years, Funk said. Some of the classrooms, for example, still have the original sinks, which are knee-high for adults, but just the right height for children.
Steve Forster, who is responsible for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.’s facilities, said the building’s design, especially how it uses overhangs for shade, is impressive.
Nonetheless, some areas of the structure are showing their age, while other aspects have been surpassed by modern materials, he said.
A $2.5 million project last year, which involved Funk’s architectural firm, included converting the culinary arts area, which was moved to Columbus North High School, into a child care facility for children of some of the school’s students and teachers.
Forster said a statistical analysis the school completed with Cummins Inc. indicated that providing child care for students would increase graduation rates.
The single-pane windows were replaced last year with more efficient double-pane windows. Modern shades, which have replaced the original curtains, reduce the need for air conditioning but still allow students a view of the exterior.
The project also included a new playground on the northeast quad, between the classrooms and the main building. “Toddlertown,” surrounded by a chain-link fence, includes a small structure with a red roof, a crawling tube and a blue slide.
McDowell’s roofs will be replaced soon, too, Forster said, paid in part by insurance funds the school received for hail damage.
A proposed second phase of upgrades, to cost up to nearly $2 million, would include replacing some sidewalks, doors and fire alarm systems.
Whatever changes one makes, Funk said, you want to make sure that you stay true to the original design. When his firm replaced the windows, for example, many people told him they barely noticed a change.