Heights schools begin their second century

Belvoir (Gearity)

As the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District embarks on a review of its physical needs for the 21st century, it is a good time to look back at the buildings that have served the community’s children for the past century. Since the completion of the 1970s renovations, and construction of four new schools, the district has not constructed a new building in 35 years—the longest period in its history without new construction. Before this hiatus, there was a near-constant cycle of new school construction, first in Cleveland Heights and then in University Heights.

At the dawn of the 20th century, the township/city that became Cleveland Heights was beginning its transformation from a farming community in the hinterlands of Cleveland to a "garden suburb" of homes for people seeking to escape the city. Early districts, such as Euclid Heights, Euclid Golf, Ambler Heights and Mayfield Heights would soon be joined by numerous developments as Cleveland’s population sought larger lots away from the noise and pollution of the city center.

In the early days of the Cleveland Heights School District, there were only three buildings to serve the small population: Superior Schoolhouse at the intersection of Superior Road and Euclid Heights Boulevard; Noble, located on Noble Road in the city’s northeast, and Roxboro, serving the western edge of the community.

At that time, Cleveland Heights was on the cusp of tremendous growth and its civic leaders planned for a series of buildings to be constructed over the next 20 years. These would be needed as the city’s population rapidly increased. Between 1910 and 1930, the population of Cleveland Heights grew from 2,955 to 50,946.

To accommodate the growing school population, more schools were built: the first Heights High (later Roosevelt Junior High) on Lee Road in 1915; Fairfax in 1916; Coventry in 1917; the second Roxboro (Elementary) in 1919; Taylor and the second Noble in 1922; Boulevard in 1923; Roxboro Junior High and the new Cleveland Heights High in 1926; Oxford in 1928; Canterbury in 1929 and Monticello in 1930.

This was a golden age of school design, with one beautiful building after another, combining historical styles with the latest in building technologies and mechanical systems. With the Great Depression, growth came to a screeching halt and school design never recovered. But what great buildings the district commissioned in the first three decades of the century!

Boulevard School, designed by Warner, McCornack & Mitchell, was an impressive building, with minarets above its ornate stone-lined portico. Fairfax sported a dramatic front door, like something from a Tudor castle, with peaked towers above its staircases. Architect Franz C. Warner designed five diverse buildings in Cleveland Heights. Coventry School, built after considerable controversy in the neighborhood, anchored the intersection with a prominent tower and detailed scrollwork over its front door. Creative use of its awkward pie-shaped site allowed for a later addition along Euclid Heights Boulevard.

Warner’s design for Roxboro had three prominent arch windows below its mansard roof, which were covered by an addition in the 1970s. Warner’s third building, Taylor, featured a Tudor design, with arrow loops flanking a front door, which seemed intended to defend against invaders.

The second Noble School, designed by Warner, McCornack & Mitchell, displayed a more conservative design—similar to that of the Oxford and Canterbury schools, designed by John H. Graham. While most of the buildings were built with symmetrical additions in mind, the asymmetry of Canterbury’s design was later marred by "eclectic" additions.

Although Canterbury’s design lacked the architectural flourishes of other schools, Graham’s designs for Roxboro and Monticello junior high schools gave the district two buildings with clean lines and prominent entrances. Monticello’s arched entrance and Roxboro’s Greek portico enable one to forgive later additions that disrupt these otherwise majestic buildings—new construction was quietly tucked behind the original buildings.

Temporary classrooms

As the student population grew rapidly, temporary trailers and added wings became common. Photos and plat maps show temporary buildings at several schools and how the buildings grew. Extensions had been planned for, and often were built just a year or two after a building’s completion. Construction was so frequent that, from 1910 to 1960, the only time when school construction ceased was during the Depression and World War II.

Great Heights

Warner, McCornack & Mitchell’s design for the new Cleveland Heights High School has survived multiple additions and alterations since 1926. Prior to the Sputnik-era addition along Cedar Road, Heights High’s Tudor-Gothic design gave the building the appearance of a college or New England prep school, especially with the growth of ivy on its walls over the years.

A 1930 addition on the building’s west side carefully matched the original design. The addition of a social room and classroom wing in 1948, on the building’s east side, matched the rest, only in its use of similar brick. The addition of the science wing, south gym, south pool and new cafeteria ended debate, in the 1950s, over the need for a second high school. Unfortunately, the new additions obstructed the front of the building—so much so that casual passersby miss the grand main entrance of Height High.

The less said about the 1970s addition and alterations to the building, the better. In the 1990s, however, renovations to the 1,200-seat auditorium turned this worn area into the most impressive public space in the community.

Postwar Era

The hiatus caused by the Great Depression and World War II ended with the construction of Northwood (1948), Belvoir (1949), Millikin (1953) and Wiley (1954) schools. These buildings display the postwar aesthetic that came to dominate school design for decades, and exhibit the same layered building program seen in the prewar buildings. For example, while Wiley appears to have been built all at once, it was actually constructed in phases, completed in 1954, 1956 and 1957. The construction of a new board of education building next to Wiley, in 1963, marked a change in the future of school buildings. The venerable Lee Road School was demolished to make room for athletic facilities at Roosevelt.

Modern Era

In 1972, the citizens passed a $19.5 million bond issue to construct four new buildings and renovate the schools systemwide. Many buildings were approaching the age of 50 and had been in heavy use through constantly expanding enrollments.

Roosevelt fell to the wrecking ball, along with Coventry, Fairfax, Boulevard and Taylor. The four elementary schools were replaced with the same design. Indicative of the 1970s, the new "footprint" buildings would be known for their open-classroom design, a concept soon ignored by teachers, who subdivided the open spaces into traditional classrooms. The exuberance of the 1970s was seen not only in the garishly bright colors used in interiors, but also in the bronze-tinted replacement windows bolted to the exterior of buildings. A hodgepodge of additions and alterations to every building, while well-intentioned, ignored the original designs.

Dramatic declines in enrollment, combined with changing enrollment patterns, resulted in the closure of buildings just a few years after the massive construction project ended. Millikin closed in 1979. Controversy and ill feelings followed the closing of Taylor and Northwood in 1986, and Coventry in 2008.

By the 1980s, disdain for the renovations of the 1970s was palpable; and in the 1990s, the shortcomings of these renovations were systematically corrected. Fresh paint was applied and new carpet installed. Architecturally compatible windows were added to Heights, Monticello and Roxboro schools, dramatically restoring their appearance.

Second Century

Heights schools have undergone construction in nearly every era of their existence. The district currently faces the challenge of meeting the needs of its students with aging buildings and a decreasing resource base. Keeping in mind the results of earlier decisions, the district must chart a path that will enable it to provide an ideal learning environment for all students. The key will be balancing current needs with buildings from the last century—a collection of structures whose designs and history range from the extraordinary to the mundane. With careful and creative planning, the district should be able to blend the best of the past with the promise of the future.

Eric J. Silverman, Heights High ’87, is a former member of the CH-UH School Board and the CH-UH Library Board. He currently serves as president of the Cleveland Heights High School Alumni Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in View from the Overlook, the journal of the Cleveland Heights Historical Society.

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Volume 4, Issue 1, Posted 11:27 AM, 12.14.2010