J.P. McCaskey High invokes the art deco style prevalent in the ’30s

J.P. McCaskey High School is a product of the 1935 Works Progress Administration initiative, designed to put Americans back to work following the Great Depression. The building stands tall as a timeless testimony to the creativity and great work by the Lancaster community during a difficult time in our nation’s history.

By 1936, 49-year-old architect Henry Y. Shaub had earned a statewide reputation as a leader in progressive public school design for children of all ages. When retained by the School District of Lancaster to design the city’s first gender-integrated school, he took that opportunity to elevate educational design innovation to the next level.

The building, designed in the popular art deco style, presents a red brick and limestone façade along Franklin Street. The 540-foot-long façade is pierced by a tower that is 97 feet high. The grand lobby is behind the three masonry portals that stand two stories tall. This memorable lobby space features in-laid terrazzo flooring, gilded ceilings, red marble walls and walnut paneling.

The auditorium was the largest of its kind in the city, with a seating capacity of 1,900. The stage, measuring 83 feet wide and 18 feet high, was also the biggest school stage in the state, with the largest “trip curtain” in the country. The stage featured a regulation size basketball court offering every seat in the auditorium optimal views of the event.

Shaub was most proud of the unique programming elements that he was able to incorporate into the design. This included a fully staged home economic apartment, a full-size “teaching” retail display window, a 200-seat library, a 1,000-seat cafeteria, a 200-seat concert hall, an art gallery, a museum, a complete medical unit and a 12,700-square-foot multifunctional gymnasium.

In his own description of the design, Shaub speaks to the abundant natural light that permeates each classroom and the use of “light green paint for eye conservation.” The exterior materials and details reflect the art deco movement of the 1930s, including glass block, stylized pressed metal panels, cast stone medallions and cast-iron newel posts and railings.

On Feb. 6, 1938, the Lancaster Sunday News reported that more than 8,680 Lancastrians had inspected the city’s “newest palace of education” and offered rave reviews that included reactions like “marvelous,” “amazing” and “the most complete school they had ever seen.”

John Piersol McCaskey was Lancaster’s beloved educator, mayor and politician. He passed away at the age of 97, just three years before his name was carved in stone over the main entrance to the new school

What are the five square cast stone medallions above the tall windows on the front façade?

The graphic designs represent the various curriculums and programs offered at the school, such as arts, science, biology and sports.

What is the name of the horizontal brick banding along the base of the building?

The masonry detail is called “rustication.” It is a decorative feature to add visual interest to brick wall.

Is the McCaskey design one of a kind?

Supposedly, there is an exact replica of the J. P. McCaskey High School design in northern California.

This column is contributed by Gregory J. Scott, FAIA, a  local architect with more than four decades of national experience in innovation and design. He is a member of the American Institute of Architects’ College of Fellows. Email GScott@rlps.com.