On June 25, 1880, 17-year-old C. Emlen Urban stood before classmates, faculty, school directors and guests of honor as the senior class valedictorian for Lancaster High School and delivered a poignant speech of promise and praise. In 1880, the three-story, red brick building was a fine example of 1874 Queen Anne architecture that faithfully served the Lancaster community for more than 44 years.

In 1916, however, school directors commissioned Lancaster High School alumnus and architect Urban to replace his alma mater with a new and more appropriate structure that would reflect the latest design principles for a modern education. What an honor this must have been for him, while equally bittersweet.

It had only been 12 years since school superintendents had retained Urban to design the new Girls’ High School at West Chestnut and North Charlotte streets. However, shortly after its dedication in 1906, the structure was forced to accept boys because of the rapid growth of the city’s population. The new Boys’ High School would correct the issue and return things to normal, for at least 20 years.

Urban seized the opportunity to again showcase his talent and skills by designing a new three-story structure in the popular beaux-arts style. The resulting building, which still stands today as Fulton Elementary School, is organized around an impressive and innovative 960-seat semicircular auditorium with 20 large leaded-glass ceiling diffusers. The auditorium is suspended above the gymnasium and indoor running track on massive steel girders.

Interestingly, the original drawings refer to the well-lit classrooms as “recitation rooms.” The science curriculum included three impressive laboratories that supported physical, chemical and biological studies and were connected to a state-of-the-art demonstration theater.

The business curriculum included classrooms for shorthand and bookkeeping; the vocational classrooms included equipment for mechanical drafting and patternmaking.

The exterior reflects an equal level of detailing and careful consideration, with gold-colored tapestry brick, cast-stone balustrades, cut-stone bases and capitals, sculptured stone panels, Greek urns, garlands and a most impressive eagle with torches above the main entrance. Students and visitors are received in a two-story hallowed reception hall complete with neoclassical detailing, an imperial staircase with wrought-iron railing and, finally, niches for busts of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

At the building’s dedication ceremony, newspaper accounts of the time reported, enthusiastic school board President P.E. Slaymaker proclaimed the new school to be a “beacon light … guiding (students), and leading them in the higher paths of rectitude and right.”

When was the school dedicated?

The school was dedicated 100 years ago on Sept. 26, 1918.

Was the school completed on time and on budget?

No on both counts, and for good reasons. Seven months after the cornerstone was installed, the United States entered World War I. Material and labor both were in short supply, impacting costs and schedule.

Who attended the dedication?

The Pennsylvania state governor, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court and 75 other invited dignitaries joined Urban on center stage for the dedication in front of a packed auditorium.

  • 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.