ESCANABA - Soon the 2010-11 school year will begin, and the handsome Escanaba Middle School on Ludington Street (historically known as the Escanaba Junior High) will see fifth, sixth and seventh graders coming in to begin a new year. While all of these students will be busy learning where their classrooms are and who their teachers are, I hope some of them will spend a little time, too, taking a look at the handsome exterior of this lovely historic school.
I did just that myself recently, and I have to say that while I enjoyed studying the ornamental details of this fine building, there were two things about it that left me a little puzzled. One of these is an historical puzzle, and I will get to that later. The other puzzle concerns what architectural style the Middle School was built in.
You would think that a building as big and as attractive as our middle school would fit into a recognized architectural style easily, but that is not the case. I hoped the architect, H.T. Turner of Grand Rapids, might have mentioned the style, but when I looked up articles about the building from when it was being built in 1930-31, nothing was said about the style.
So I began digging into books dealing with the history of American architectural styles, and increasingly I was drawn to a style that began in the later 19th Century called the Renaissance Revival. This is a style that has a real liking for order. For instance, if you have an ornate entranceway on one side of a building, you should have the same kind of entranceway on the other side. If you look at the main facade of our middle school, the side facing Ludington Street, you can see that is one of the striking characteristics of this building. Having all those round Roman arches over the six windows in the center of the main facade is another good indication that this is a Renaissance Revival building.
My inclination to call this a Renaissance Revival building was strengthened when my wife, Karen, who is head of the Archives Committee for the Delta County Historical Society, found a guide to prominent Delta County buildings in our Archives that included the Middle School and said it was built in the Renaissance Revival style. It helps that the highly-regarded artist and historian, Clara Mosenfelder, was very much involved in the creation of this guide.
Beyond the balanced nature of the building and all those round-arched windows, there is another feature to the Middle School that makes it a special building. That is all the ornamentation which is part of the exterior. Ornamentation like this was something that American designers liked to do with all sorts of buildings from the 1880s well into the 20th Century. You can see this ornamentation especially in and around both entranceways facing Ludington Street beginning on the outside of both entrances with those twisted or spiral columns.
As for the entrances themselves, both of them have three more columns which are part of the double archways. Looking closer then at those columns and the horizontal courses, or layers of brick, above them, you can see they are covered with tiles decorated in floral and other designs.
As if all this were not enough in the two main entrances, facing Ludington Street, the builders also installed two figures of owls high in each entranceway. Probably, I suppose, these are not Just any owls, but four wise old owls, and they are there to encourage all who enter to become as wise as they are.
Looking beyond the entrances to the six windows in between, you can see the decoration there too. All six windows have panes made of colored glass.
One final special feature about this building which makes it such a treat to look at is the color of the bricks. That sandy color, I think, is just right for a lakeshore community like Escanaba with its lovely sandy beaches.
Earlier I mentioned that I was puzzled about something historical involving our middle school. This puzzle involves when it was built. The Great Depression began in the fall of 1929 and went on for over a decade. So how in the world did the people of Escanaba ever decide to finance and to build this great big, wonderful public school in 1930-31 when the economy was crumbling all over America? More about this in another article.
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Charles Lindquist is president of the Delta County Historical Society