With the arrival of a new century in 1900, C. Emlen Urban continued to rise in popularity and notoriety in all circles of engagement, public, private and social.
The recent completions of the Stehli Silk Mill, the Wharton School, Stager Hall at Franklin & Marshall College and the Quarryville School set the stage for a commission that would test the mettle of this young rising star.
In 1902, the School Board of Lancaster commissioned 39-year-old Urban to design the girls high school. After visits to recently completed commissions by other architects in York, Reading, Chester County and Atlantic City, Urban returned to Lancaster to design what would be considered the most extravagant, controversial and expensive high school between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
The center-city site at Chestnut and Charlotte streets, with tree-lined streets, rolling topography and generous sidewalks, was the perfect setting for his three-story all-masonry structure. He employed three architectural styles: beaux-arts, Italian Renaissance and Greek Classical. Urban’s four-year apprenticeship 20 years earlier with Philadelphia’s avant-garde architect, Willis G. Hale, gave him the confidence and skills necessary to effectively mix and match these diverse styles.
The purple brownstone foundation blocks, golden bricks, elaborate terra cotta ornamentation, green copper cresting and hand-carved chestnut entrance led to severe public criticism for the significant cost overruns that occurred during construction.
The design also included a third-floor, 600-seat auditorium complete with chandeliers and French Renaissance plaster work, along with innovative programs and equipment such as typewriters and wireless telegraph, which were deemed too extravagant for a proper girls education.
Unfortunately, Urban’s woes didn’t end with the relentless criticism that plagued him throughout the four-year project. He also found himself embroiled in a frivolous lawsuit involving accusations of graft and corruption associated with the school. After numerous court appearances, testimonies and widespread coverage in newspapers from as far away as Philadelphia, the charges were eventually dropped, but not until several weeks before the public dedication on Dec. 22, 1905.
Despite the controversy initially surrounding this commission, Stevens High School, also called Stevens High School for Girls, is considered by many to be Urban’s high-water mark. It represents his uncanny ability to forecast the future through masterful design and program interpretation.
How long did the building remain an all-girls school?
The city’s overall population was growing faster than the district could manage, so shortly after the 1906 grand opening, boys began attending classes there as well until the district could build a separate boys school (now Fulton Elementary School, on West Orange Street), also designed by Urban, a few years later.
How many “lives” has the girls school seen?
It remained a girls high school (except for the brief period when boys also attended) until McCaskey High School opened its doors in 1938. At that time, it was renamed Thaddeus Stevens Elementary School and remained in that use until 1983. The building then was converted to the apartments that exist there today.
Why has the building aged so well?
As Urban so eloquently stated in defense of his design during the 1905 dedication, “... time will prove the wisdom of building well!” That has certainly been the case for this building.
The series so far:
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.