It’s September, and even C. Emlen Urban had to go back to school! However, as a young architect it was for a new objective — to design them.
Urban’s illustrious career included many building types: residences, civic buildings, churches, industrial, mercantile, offices and even schools. In all, he designed 13 public schools, from his first in 1895 at the age of 32 to his last in East Lampeter Township on Old Philadelphia Pike toward the end of his career.
His more notable school designs include Stevens High School, 1906; Milton Hershey Consolidated School, 1914; Fulton Boys’ School, 1916; Reynolds Middle School, 1927; and Lancaster Catholic High School, 1929.
Urban’s school designs were as varied as the architectural styles that he chose for each of them. Each school represented a popular style of the time, beginning with Italian Renaissance for the 1895 Strawberry Street Elementary School, to Gothic Revival for Reynolds Middle School and Beaux-Arts/French Renaissance for his most controversial design, the Stevens High School.
All 13 buildings are still in existence. Some are being used for their original function, while others have been repurposed for a new use. Either way, their longevity reflects the integrity of the materials he specified, the quality of the design and the buildings’ ability to adapt to changing times.
The floor plans are extremely organized and easy to navigate, representing the discipline and clarity of their function. Large windows and abundant light provide an effective learning environment for the students, while building materials both inside and out were selected for their endurance and ability to withstand heavy use. Additionally, each design offered passersby a clear message of the building’s intended use — whether through strong and monumental symmetry or the clever use of symbolic educational icons on the facades.
Urban’s later designs in particular incorporated traditional symbols of learning to reinforce the many facets of education. The following icons can be found in cast stone or wood carvings on many of his schools: stacked books, diplomas, lions’ masks (representing courage and strength), eagles (symbolizing freedom), laurels (for victory), Minerva (the Roman goddess of wisdom) and, finally, the lamp of knowledge. Those who take the time to go back to Urban’s school buildings and examine his designs more closely just might “learn” something new.
Did C. Emlen Urban design the original J. P. McCaskey High School?
No. J. P. McCaskey was designed by another local architect, Henry Y. Shaub, and dedicated in 1938. Urban died the following year after a two-year illness.
Are any two schools that Urban designed similar in appearance?
Yes. The Milton Hershey Consolidated School, designed in 1914, and Lancaster Catholic High School, designed in 1929, are very similar in their Tudor Revival style, proportions, detailing and materials.
Why was the Stevens School so controversial?
The final construction cost for the Stevens School was 2 1/2 times more than the original estimate. It was reported to be “an aggregation of extravagance” by the Lancaster New Era newspaper in May 1903. Stay tuned for more details; the Stevens School will be the subject of a future story.
- Note to readers: Thank you to all who have contacted me about their Urban-designed homes and businesses. Please keep them coming; we love finding previously unknown (by us at least) Urban works.
- 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.