West Columbia Elementary School
(All photographs by Donald Barthelme, Sr. All illustrations courtesy of Donald Barthelme, Sr. Architectural Papers, University of Houston Libraries, Special Collections; by permission of Estate of Donald Barthelme, Sr.)
by Stephen James
The Baby Boom after World War II required communities around the country to build more schools. Parents and school districts demanded that the schools be modern and reflect the latest educational theories. In response, architects proposed new school designs that promised economical construction and flexibility in the way classes were conducted.
Few of these modern schools captured the public imagination as much as the West Columbia Elementary School by Houston architect Donald Barthelme. Completed in 1951 for the small town of West Columbia in Brazoria County, Texas, the school won many awards and was published in countless magazines. It made Barthelme a star, and he appeared frequently in local newspapers.
Why? The elementary school advanced many new ideas and did it on an extremely tight budget. To cut costs, a central common area did double duty as cafeteria and auditorium. Its innovative design departed from the traditional practice of placing classrooms along both sides of a long corridor. Instead, Barthelme arranged the building around two large courtyards; classrooms opened to the courts through floor-to-ceiling glass. This flooded the rooms with light while providing a sheltered environment for the students. Classrooms featured wood paneling and colorful tackboards. Barthelme’s design saved money by using lightweight steel framing and leaving it exposed, where it became a decorative element. At the main entrance, a flamboyant scalloped canopy greeted visitors.
Despite its notoriety, wear and tear took their toll on the school’s inexpensive construction. After 50 years it had reached the end of its lifespan, and in the early 2000s the school district demolished it. In 2005 a new elementary school opened nearby, but the school district paid homage to Barthelme’s acclaimed design by preserving the scalloped canopy as a shelter at the front of the now-vacant site.
Records of the West Columbia Elementary School and Barthelme’s other work are contained in the Donald Barthelme, Sr. Architectural Papers at the University of Houston Libraries, Special Collections Department. Some of Barthelme’s designs can be viewed online at the library’s Digital Library (http://digital.lib.uh.edu/collection/2001_003).
Author Dr. Stephen James is Curator of Architecture & Planning Collections at the University of Houston’s M.D. Anderson Library, Special Collections Department. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.