Milwaukee is well known for having beautiful, old architecture and when strangers come to town, they often comment on how lucky we are to have preserved so many of our old buildings. Those visitors will also point out things we don’t see and they can remind us to pay more attention to some beautiful things that too many of us have learned to forget.
Emanuel Philipp Elementary School is a fascinating and mostly forgotten school building. The Milwaukee Public School District decided to close this school in 2006. As we say goodbye, let’s take another look and try to remember why it was built it in the first place.
Located at 4310 N. 16th Street, it was designed by the architectural firm of Eschweiler & Eschweiler who also designed the art deco Milwaukee Gas Light tower and the art moderne Hotel Metro, This one is a nice blend of Arts & Crafts and Art Deco design.
This is a school designed for children. One might believe that all schools are built that way, but at Philipp Elementary there are Mother Goose-themed terra cotta panels wrapping the building. Want to know how the elephant got its trunk? Look on the child-height, carved-relief sides of the steps leading to the front doors, where you’ll also see an alligator and a storytelling brave and lions and tigers and well, bears too. Look up from there to meet the stone-cast stares from the five penguins guarding the entry. All who enter here should know this was not designed to just be a place for education, but it was to be a garden for the seeds of imagination, adventure and a lifelong love affair with learning.
Step within and you’ll find two kindergarten rooms just around the corner. In one, look at the floor to find hidden panels that lift out to reveal a sandbox. Just inside the other is a fireplace with small animals carved into the surround. Look farther into the room and find a fountain. What did these things teach children about learning? What did they reveal about their teachers, parents and community of that era?
This is a school built in the early 1930s for a neighborhood of poor immigrants from Germany, the country where kindergarten was invented. During those comparatively unsophisticated and cash-starved years, even they knew what must always be inside the lives of children. Back then, they knew that whimsy could be part of the bottom line.
Today, the panels over the sandbox are sealed, the fountain is dry and the fires have been put out. Why don’t these things have a place in twenty-first century education? Have they been crowded out by the unfunded mandates and unfettered liability? Have the contending and contentious interest groups evolved past even the possibility for little children to sit around a fireplace while stories are told and lessons learned? Are we all just too busy, too distracted and too discouraged to recognize that timeless things are being left in the past? Can the future of education ever again be made safe for sandboxes?
It is a hard earned tradition that our schools are supposed to secure skills, knowledge and citizenship leading to a better future for all. But we keep failing at that, and in the confusion of constant reform, we now find ourselves with an easier tradition of making sure that schools are at least secure employment programs for adults.
In our constant rush to create perfect schools and perfect students, we oddly find ourselves with educational policies which are almost always younger than the children themselves. Why does so much in education constantly change? Are policy makers and educators such good life-long learners that they always need to update their methods? We know change is good, but so is continuity. Sometimes the most progressive thing to do is not to change, but to stand firmly upon hard earned traditions which will always be true.
Why did they really close Emanuel Philipp Elementary? Is the building too old and inefficient? Do we have too few students and too little funding? Or is a beautiful building like this too embarrassing because we don’t want to be reminded that the district, city and citizens who built it in 1931 knew that schools are not always about the bottom line, they are always about the horizon.
David Zach is a futurist who speaks on trends, traditions and the choices between them. He’s been on the board of the American Institute of Architects, the board of AIA-WI, the board of The Woodlands School, a member of a Milwaukee Public Schools school-based management council, and was ad-hoc faculty in the School of Education at UW-Milwaukee.