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.
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?
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.
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.)