60 Years Ago, A Futuristic High School Vision

Staples High School is almost 135 years old. The 3-story building — the latest incarnation — was dedicated in 2005. It’s already a teenager.

It replaced a low-slung, 1-story school that was completed in 1981. And that replaced, in turn, the original North Avenue Staples, which opened in 1958 when the high school moved from Riverside Avenue. (That building is now Saugatuck Elementary.)

That 1958 school was actually 8 separate buildings — including a stand-alone auditorium — connected by outdoor walkways. It was a dramatic architectural departure for an educational institution. It was airy, fresh — and controversial.

The 1959 version of the North Avenue campus: 8 separate buildings.

On January 1, 1959, the Westport Town Crier published a special insert, filled with news stories and photos of the new high school. One piece offered architecture firm Sherwood, Mills & Smith’s interpretation of their work.

Lester Smith described site conditions, educational programs, the need for future expansion, ease of supervision, and the desire to create a “warm, intimate environment scaled to the physical realities of adolescence” as driving forces behind the design.

But he did not say where the inspiration came from.

Ever since the 1950s, Westporters have talked about that school’s “California-style” architecture — and derided it as inappropriate for New England weather.

It turns out the inspiration may actually have come from … Michigan.

Alert “06880” reader and 1971 Staples graduate Fred Cantor offers the inside story below.

While January 2019 will be the 60th anniversary of the formal dedication of the first North Avenue campus, February marks 60 years since the opening of Chelsea (Michigan) High School. How did a school that opened after Staples perhaps serve as its inspiration?

Chelsea High School, opened in Michigan in 1959, looks a lot like …

The story begins with science teacher Ken Johnson, who taught at Staples in the 1950s and ’60s. In the mid-50s he attended a conference in the Midwest. Among the topics: effective school design. Materials included a description of a school to be built in Michigan. It would feature 1-story buildings, connected by covered walkways.

Back in Westport, Johnson excitedly discussed the plans with Staples principal Stan Lorenzen. Both men saw the value in keeping students on the move between classroom buildings.

According to Johnson, teachers were having a tough time monitoring students as they congregated in hallways and stairwells at the traditionally built Riverside Avenue school. Keeping students moving between classes meant they always had somewhere to go.

Providing a separate building for each department — English, social studies, science, foreign language, etc. — also made sense.

The need for future expansion was important too. Adding space without knocking down walls was one more attraction. In fact, an addition was constructed just 4 years after the original building opened.

… the Staples High School campus. This shot is from the 1970s. (Photo/Fred Cantor)

Those same elements were considered in the plans for Chelsea High School.

But why might a yet-to-be-constructed school in a small Michigan town even be discussed at the conference Ken Johnson attended?

Because it was designed by prominent modernist architect Minoru Yamasaki. Today, he is best remembered for his design of New York’s World Trade Center.

He was already famous for his 1956 futuristic design of the St. Louis airport terminal. In 1957, his novel plans for Chelsea High were part of an article in Architectural Forum magazine.

Plans for an 8-building school were announced in Westport in January 1956. Political and financial issues delayed official approval by a full year, however. A complete redesign followed — still with 8 separate buildings. Construction finally began in June.

The new Staples High School opened 17 months later. Thanks, in part — perhaps — to a world-famous architect in Michigan.

(Hat tips: former Staples teacher Ken Johnson and his daughter Kelley for their background information. For more on Yamasaki’s plans for Chelsea High School, click here.)

An aerial view of Staples High School, 1959.

19 responses to “60 Years Ago, A Futuristic High School Vision

  1. I loved my SHS campus.
    The separate buildings, the covered walkways it was an adult/college style atmosphere where you could ‘escape’ for a few minutes on your way to your next class. Each building has a unique personality. It was a great concept.

    • I loved it too! It was invigorating. The central courtyard was part of the our lives. It seemed like a new experience whenever we changed classes. It was very conducive to learning, and for me was the first time I applied myself ….which seemed to have come out of nowhere! Maybe it was the buildings which kept us moving!! All that walking and fresh air! When people mock it, I just wish they could have experienced it! Merry Christmas!

  2. I forgot: MERRY CHRISTMAS to all.

  3. Charles Taylor

    In Aug 15, 1958 our family moved to Greens Farms and my twin sister Ann and I enrolled in Staples HS. Our former school in western KY was built in the 1900’s and was a single multi level building. You can’t imagine the surprise when we saw Staples for the first time. I think I whispered Ga Leee!
    I had Ken for Biology that year. Thanks Mr Johnson!

  4. Michael Calise

    Interesting to know if the Chelsea campus has gone through the same transformation as Staples. Since I graduated from the “old” Staples I never had the privilege of the campus experience of the “new” staples but have always felt that it was a great concept.

    • Mary Cookman Schmerker Staples '58

      I’m replying under Michael, as fellow Old Staples and ’58 Grad. I remember attending Christmas Concerts in the new Staples auditorium when I returned home from college and the wonder of the size and the acoustics. Question: Is my memory correct that “our” last Christmas Concert ,1957, was in the new auditorium or am I just wishing?
      A Staples Education was and is a privilege .
      Merry Christmas……”Sing We Noel”. ……

  5. Wasn’t most every school designed in the late 50’s and 60’s a version of the mod “California” architecture? Not many stairwells survived the 60’s. Most neighboring towns’ schools of that era are of the single story, pavillioned layout. – Chris Woods

    • Elizabeth Thibault

      This is very true! I grew up in Burlington, VT, and our high school was of the same style. It’s 5 buildings connected with the unheated covered walkways. (There was often frost inside, when there was a few feet of snow on the ground.) It was built in the mid-60’s, and they’re just getting around to doing a first renovation on it since, a $70m project in 2020.
      Our town is lucky, indeed, to be able to give our students updated facilities and a top notch education.

  6. Arline Gertzoff

    The concept had its drawbacks with carrying your coat around and ice formations between the buildings At least once school at Staples was canceled and a DPW crew came up with pix axes to clear the ice between the buildings so nobody would get injured There is another version of the multi building design that a Board of Ed member saw the design in CA and sold the idea to Westport Stated in the newspaper when the current Staples was rededicated.When it started falling apart it wasn’t so great and kids still congregated in the halls
    Arline Gertzoff Staples 64

  7. Chip Stephens SHS '73

    I too loved my campus in the spring and fall, winter was another story between the buildings. But it was another time far far away that would be every parents nightmare in todays time.
    Open campus due to crowding allowed us to get there late and leave early even eat lunch at the big top or the diner of choice. The NIKE site property forest next door (now Bedford) where terrible tales of misdeeds by students and teachers alike were told to take place. The rule of no PDA (personal display of affection) on campus was laughable. The CBS news undercover cameras from NY showed kids selling/ swapping pot in the parking lot, the outrage lasted maybe a week then SOS after. I could go on about hippies and greasers, about the players and their outstanding plays, the amazing concerts thanks to an amazing auditorium and very savvy locals who got talent here. Buck buck and ultimate frisbee, the designated smoking area on the blacktop off the cafeteria….
    It was a different time, a magical time despite war, walls, and riots in the world and in the cities around the US. We had our Staples haven and Westport turned out many great minds and persons that made and continue to make a difference in the world.
    Merry Christmas Westport, thanks for the memories…

    • Ah yes, the “PDA” rule. Issued by the same principal who had pretty girls giving him back rubs in his office. Imagine that happening today!

  8. We lived adjacent to Staples from 1955-62. The property was originally woods, and in 2nd grade, we would venture into the woods for a few feet before fear of lions, tigers and Indians would cause us to scurry back. Once the school was built, it was a great place for riding bikes and we would pretend the different buildings were various buildings in a city, it provided a great shortcut to North Avenue to get to Burr Farms, and I used to run laps on the track. The auditorium served as a venue for the Connecticut Symphony, Dave Brubeck, and Hal Holbrook doing his Mark Twain. Alas we moved from Westport before high school and I went to a boring one building school.

  9. Don L. Bergmann

    Delightful story, thanks Dan, and thanks for the fascinating comments. Another school structure of interest was Hillspoint Elementary. It remains, though not as one of our schools.
    Don Bergmann

  10. As I recall (Class of ’74), the main problem with the separate buildings wasn’t getting cold (note that kids to this day walk outside in shorts in the winter) but the frequent bursting of the steam pipes used to heat all 9 buildings from a central boiler plant, leading to occasional class cancellations.

    I’m sure the current enclosed building has advantages, but the disadvantage is in how it looks: a massive red brick colossus resembling an airport terminal or shopping mall. The old “new Staples,” however, provided a balance between nature and building. — and it was nice to step outside between classes.

    • Sharon Paulsen

      Agree with what you said about a balance between nature and building, Peter.

      Architecture (when it’s good), creates a natural flow of that balance between indoor and out.

      Healthy “Feng Shui”, so to speak.

  11. Perhaps there was a subliminal effect to attending a high school with a design inspired by Minoru Yamasaki. After Staples, I somehow ended up at Carleton College in Northfield, MN, where my freshman dorm was designed by Yamasaki. It turns out the same man designed a total of 5 buildings on the Carleton campus.

    • Sharon Paulsen

      Ah … well as some say, “there are no ‘mistakes’ in life … only correlations” (or something along those lines).

  12. Thank You for the Fond Memories , of the Old Style Campus …

  13. It was interesting braving the blowing snow in winter but moving from building to building was a good thing I now realize now being in education we are always finding ways to keep kids moving and not just sitting
    The hall congregating between classes is our biggest problem.
    Mr Johnson was one of my favorite teachers
    I graduated in 1965