Elementary School in MD abandoned in 1983


Louisa May Alcott School, Baltimore Maryland
Date added: October 25, 2023 Categories: Maryland School Colonial Revival
View from Alley to Northeast and Northwest Elevations (1989)

Louisa May Alcott School, originally known as School No. 59, was completed in 1910 and is associated with the progressive movement which dominated public education in the first quarter of the twentieth century. The reform of Baltimore's City Charter in 1899 resulted in the appointment of a Board of Education free from ward politics and an Architectural Commission to promote harmony in the design of Baltimore's public buildings. Under these changes the professional standards of teachers and principals were raised, a progressive curriculum was introduced, and the city began to move its schools from the crowded and poor environments of rented spaces in warehouse structures to new school buildings that reflected a far more complex program and were conceived as monuments to learning and respectability. Louisa May Alcott School replaced two such rented buildings.

The new schools had built into them the philosophy of health and productivity. The Louisa May Alcott School is the one remaining school of the three whose designs were selected in the first competition by the Architectural Commission which was appointed in 1907. An important feature introduced into school design which came out of this first competition and became a staple in public schools of normal size is the assembly hall. In this building the assembly hall is on the ground level. Another significant feature introduced in the competition and found in the Alcott School is the pneumatic vacuum cleaning system which reflects the progressive concern with a healthy environment. Prominent architect Otto G. Simonson designed Louisa May Alcott School as well as various other notable buildings in Baltimore.

From 1816 until 1883, North Avenue was the northern boundary of Baltimore City. Subsequently, the City annexed 23 square miles of land to the north and west, thus creating a need to construct more schools to meet the demands of the growing population in outlying areas. Less than one mile within the new city limits, School No. 59 was located in Ward 15 where census figures indicate that the population doubled from 14,791 in 1890 to 30,079 in 1910.

At least one rented building at Park Heights Avenue served as School No. 59 at the turn of the century. By Ordinance No. 28 of October 1907, the City appropriated $50,000 for the purchase of a lot of ground and construction of a building on the Old Pimlico Road to replace School No. 59. (A letter states that William Shirley, a prominent businessman, donated the land for the Alcott School. However, land records indicate that Shirley deeded the property to one Elisha D. Owen in 1854 and the land changed hands again before the City purchased it in 1907 for $5500.) The ordinance also authorized the invitation of architects to submit competitive designs of the school. While Otto G. Simonson's drawings for a twelve-room School No. 59 were selected and approved, they were abandoned because contractors' cost estimates far exceeded the appropriation. A larger building was commissioned.

According to the Annual Report of the Board of School Commissioners, 1910, the new Reisterstown Road Elementary School No. 59 was considered "... first-class and modern . . in all its appointments ..." Occupied in November of 1910, the building included an assembly hall with seating capacity for 500 students; fire-proof stairways, in response to the great fire of 1904; drinking fountains; and a pneumatic system of vacuum cleaning and dust removal, a first in Baltimore schools. Otto G. Simonson was architect; Henry Adams, consulting engineer; and Peebles & Co., builders. The building cost $117,077.62. When it opened, two rented buildings on Park Heights Avenue, formerly known as School No. 59, were vacated.

Baltimore: An Illustrated History calls J. Barry Mahool Baltimore's "... last progressive mayor . . .", a proponent of efficient government and social reform. While the rebuilding of the burned-out business district was well underway by his mayoral term of office, May, 1907 to May, 1911, his First Annual Message proudly records his appointment of the first Architectural Commission so that a " . . . uniformity of plan, as well as a harmony of style, will be preserved . . ." in the design and construction of the city's public buildings. Effective October 15, 1907, City Ordinance No. 184 provided for "... competition in the selection of drawings and plans for use in the construction and reconstruction of city buildings ..." and the creation of the Architectural Commission of Baltimore City, composed of ". . three persons of cultivated tastes and sound judgment ..." The ordinance authorized the city's Inspector of Buildings to compile all information needed by architects and to publish invitations to compete. Submission requirements were specified, including notice that those exceeding appropriations for the particular project would be disqualified.

In 1907, five designs were selected in competition and approved by the first Architectural Commission of Baltimore City: No. 1 Engine House and School at Forest Park by Simonson and Pietsch; School No. 86 and Baltimore City Jail by Pietsch; and School No. 59 by Simonson. Of the three schools, only No. 59 survives.

The ordinance was repealed and restated in 1908 to more clearly define the commission's powers and again in 1909 to expand the commission's membership and authority, permitting contracts to be awarded either by competition or direct commission. By 1910, the commission had six members plus the head of the department for whose purposes construction was needed. Simonson's design for School No. 2 was among the proposals that this commission approved.

Born in Dresden, Germany in 1862, Otto G. Simonson completed his education in Germany and came to the U.S. in 1883. While senior draftsman in the office of the Supervising Architect of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the Spanish-American War prompted him to resign and enlist in the Army as senior captain of a company of District of Columbia Volunteers. At the war's end, he was appointed Superintendent of Contractors of Public Buildings, again in the U.S. Department of the Treasury. When the Baltimore fire of 1904 cleared blocks of buildings in the downtown business district, Simonson resigned from federal service and entered private architectural practice in Baltimore where he had spent the past two years monitoring construction of the U.S. Customs House.

The professional partnership of Simonson and Pietsch lasted only about four years, from 1904 to 1908, but it successfully produced various noteworthy buildings. As depicted in Recent Works of Simonson and Pietsch, published in 1906, these include the American Building; Sonneborn or Paca-Pratt Building; Mount Royal Garage; Gunther Office Building; and Gompers or Eastern High School.

After the partnership ended, Simorison remained prolific, designing many prominent buildings of diverse types and styles. His architectural catalog of 1918, Otto G. Simonson. Architect depicts the Palace (Burlesque) Theatre; Machine Shop for the Crown Cork & Seal Company; Crown Assembling Plant in Highlandtown; William Painter Memorial for the Children's Hospital School; Simpson and Doeller Company Printing Plant; Branch 18 of the Enoch Pratt Free Library; residences for Frank Novak, Esq., Robert V. White, Esq., and Frank H.Gunther, Esq.; Normandie Apartments; Maryland Casualty Tower Building, demolished; and Southern Hotel. His last major work is thought to be the Maryland Casualty Company, now the Rotunda shopping center.

Simonson's School No. 59 and Pietsch's School No. 86 were the only new schools built in 1910. In his annual report, the Supervisor of School Buildings calls them similar in arrangement and description. However, comparison of their early photographs readily distinguishes them.

Likewise, the other city schools known to have been designed by Simonson are dissimilar in exterior appearance. The School at Forest Park, later known as Liberty School No. 64, was built in 1907, demolished and replaced in the 1950s. Built in 1911, the David E. Weglein Elementary School No. 2 has been declared surplus, but became expansion facilities for Baltimore's International Culinary College.

Although the City's public school system was established in 1828, it was not until 1913 that the notion of adopting individual names for school buildings was referred to the Committee on Architecture for study. As a result of the Committee's recommendation, the names of distinguished people were given to the principals of each school for the purpose of selecting a name by student vote. American novelist and writer of children's books, Louisa May Alcott was a fitting name for an elementary school.

In the 1970's, the Louisa May Alcott School No. 59 closed to students and subsequently, became regional administrative offices for the City's decentralized Department of Education. The building was vacated and declared surplus in 1983.

Building Description

Completed in 1910, the Colonial or Georgian Revival influenced Louisa May Alcott School, originally known as School No. 59, stands at the north corner of Reisterstown Road and Keyworth Avenue in northwest Baltimore. Three of the five bays in proportion, the roughly rectangular footprint of the building and its surrounding sidewalks fill the lot. As the terrain slopes down to the southwest, this free-standing building rises 3-1/2 to 4 levels from brick base to metal cornice. Each elevation of the building is symmetrically designed with brick and stucco bands, quoins, and panels, punctuated by multi-paned, mostly double-hung wood sash with granite or concrete sills, concrete heads or brick flat arches. Decorative terra-cotta features include surrounds with keystones at main entrances, brackets that visually support a circular balconette at the Keyworth Avenue facade, and sculptured, semi-circular panels above several upper windows. Three metal cupolas crown the hipped roof. The interior contains 26 classrooms, an assembly hall, miscellaneous support spaces, and 4 staircases. Prevalent interior features include hardwood floors, paneled glass-and-wood doors with transoms, simple wood trim, and pressed-metal ceilings.

Located 5 blocks northwest of Druid Hill Park, in Lower Park Heights Community of northwest Baltimore. The property retains the three original boundaries closest to the building: Reisterstown Road, the former Reisterstown Turnpike; Keyworth Avenue, formerly Fifth Avenue; and an alley along the northeast. Originally, Old Pimlico Road formed the northwest boundary, running diagonally north-south to Reisterstown Turnpike. By 1914, that block of Old Pimlico Road disappeared, expanding the school lot northwesterly to an extension of Shirley Avenue. After 1977, that section of Shirley Avenue became a pedestrian park and the construction of the lower Park Heights Multi-purpose Center and parking lot replaced the school playground. Now, the stone and concrete wall that retains the parking lot forms the physical boundary northwest of the school lot, limiting the school property to the building and its surrounding concrete sidewalks.

Each elevation of the building is symmetrically designed with brick, laid in running bond, and stucco bands, quoins, and panels, punctuated by multi-paned wood sash, some with brick flat arches and keystones. Plain asphalt shingles have replaced the original diamond-patterned shingles on the steeply hipped roof. Asphalt sheets have replaced failing, original tin at the summit of the roof, where three vented metal cupolas are symmetrically placed.

Facing southeast to two-story rowhouses across Keyworth Avenue, the central bay of the school dominates the facade. Concrete steps with brick guard walls and concrete caps create a split staircase that leads up to the main entrance at the first floor. The outer wall of the stair contains a wide opening with terracotta corner brackets and granite or concrete steps that lead down from the sidewalk to paneled glass-and-wood doors, sidelights, and transoms at the entrance to the basement assembly room. Above, the split staircase leads to paneled glass-and-wood doors and sidelights with transoms and terracotta casing. A terracotta bracket bisects the door casing and, with four flanking brackets, visually supports a balconette that bears the metal designation "School No. 59". Pairs of double-hung windows include 4/4 sash at the second floor and 6/6 sash with concrete sills and brick flat arches at the third floor. An ornamental metal band separates the paired 1/1 dormer windows from a semi-circular, elaborately sculpted terracotta panel with keystone and brick surround.

Each end bay of the facade projects about six feet beyond the main surface and features three, mostly 6/6 windows per floor. Those at the third floor are crowned with semi-circular terracotta panels with shell ornament, brick surrounds and keystones. A raised cornice of corbelled brick underscores a 1/1 dormer that interrupts decorative metal cornice fascia. Another semi-circular, ornamental terracotta panel with keystone interrupts the brick surround. The raised cornice, corbelling, and fascia extend to the sides of the building.

Three bays wide, the side elevations feature centrally located entrances with paneled glass-and-wood doors, sidelights, and transoms within arched terracotta frames with keystones. Above each entrance, pairs of windows of varying heights light the staircases within. Facing two-story duplex rowhouses across Reisterstown Road, the southwest elevation displays another metal "School No. 59" sign applied to a brick-framed stucco panel of the building. A granite belt course caps the brick base and wraps across the end bay of the facade, serving as sill for windows at the south corner of the basement. The belt course continues across the end bay of the rear elevation where basement toilet room windows have raised concrete sills above stucco panels.

In its projecting central bay, the rear, northwest elevation of the building includes two chimneys, separated by paired windows and a raised cornice of corbelled brick. Other features that distinguish this elevation from the facade include varying basement window sizes and types and single-leaf, paneled glass-and-wood doors.

In plan, the building is symmetrically designed around the cross axis of the main Keyworth Avenue entranceway and the longitudinal corridor. The twenty-four original classrooms are arranged with eight at the perimeter of each upper floor. Each classroom features paneled glass-and-wood entrance doors with some operable transoms; 5-panel wood doors at cloakrooms and supply closets; symmetrical wood casings and chair rails; large double-hung windows, with architrave mouldings; wood floors; slate blackboards; and pressed-metal ceilings with egg, dart, and acanthus leaf cornices. Cloakrooms, with 6'6" high tongued-and-grooved wood partitions and moulded caps, separate pairs of classrooms. One office per upper floor occurs directly above the main entrance, behind a staircase that runs only from the second to the third floor. One teacher's room per upper floor, with a toilet room, is centered at the northwest side of the building, behind a staircase that runs from first to second floor and from third floor to the attic.

Corridors, with wood floors, chair rails, and pressed-metal ceilings that match the classrooms, extend to fire-proof staircases at each end of the building. All staircases exhibit matching features: square metal ballusters with moulded wood handrails; classically detailed, metal newel posts; simple wood chair rails; mostly pressed-metal ceilings; and some exposed slate treads and platforms. The end stairs lead from the third floor to the basement.

At the front two corners, the basement contains two classrooms, formerly the cooking and manual training rooms. Girls' and boys' toilets at the rear corners are separated by hallways to rear exits, a teachers' dining room, and mechanical equipment rooms. A concrete colonnade, with cast metal bases and capitals, separates the longitudinal corridor from the front assembly hall. While much of the basement has concrete floors and exposed brick walls, there are some plaster walls and wood floors. Pressed-metal ceilings, wood chair rails, and door casings resemble those above.

Over the years, the building and grounds have changed. According to Baltimore City permit records, frame buildings were erected rear of the school in 1925 and 1926. By 1929, seven such buildings were used for additional classrooms, but all had been removed by 1945. Circa 1937, a stone wall was added to retain the higher grade of the land northwest of the school, presumably a playground; the wall and the steps required by this bi-level site remain.

Changes to the exterior of the building include the addition of brick infill at some basement windows, a tall fence guarding the window well at the alley side, flush metal doors at the Reisterstown Road entrance, and metal security gates at the main entrance to the basement. In addition, patches of stucco are stained and spalling and some windows are broken.

Inside the building, the removal of several sinks and gas ranges converted the cooking room to a classroom in 1933. Probably in the 1950 B, fire-rated doors were added at the upper three floors, separating the corridors and the corner classrooms from the stairs at each end of the building; a sprinkler system was installed throughout the building; and operable glass transoms, above first and second-floor classroom entrances, were sealed. Prompted by a student's fall down one of the stairwells in 1969, metal guards (and, possibly for the same reason, slip-resistant tread covers) were installed at end staircases. Partitions have been removed from some cloakrooms. Some classroom floors have been covered with tile. Interior windows at second and third floor teacher's rooms have been sealed. Probably in the mid-1970s, when the school was converted to administrative offices, partitions were added to some classrooms.

Louisa May Alcott School, Baltimore Maryland Southwest Elevation at Reisterstown Road (1989)
Southwest Elevation at Reisterstown Road (1989)

Louisa May Alcott School, Baltimore Maryland Southwest Entrance at Reisterstown Road (1989)
Southwest Entrance at Reisterstown Road (1989)

Louisa May Alcott School, Baltimore Maryland View from Keyworth Avenue to Southwest and Southeast Elevations (1989)
View from Keyworth Avenue to Southwest and Southeast Elevations (1989)

Louisa May Alcott School, Baltimore Maryland View from Keyworth Avenue to Southeast Elevation (1989)
View from Keyworth Avenue to Southeast Elevation (1989)

Louisa May Alcott School, Baltimore Maryland Keyworth Avenue Facade (1989)
Keyworth Avenue Facade (1989)

Louisa May Alcott School, Baltimore Maryland View from Keyworth Avenue to Southeast and Northeast Elevations (1989)
View from Keyworth Avenue to Southeast and Northeast Elevations (1989)

Louisa May Alcott School, Baltimore Maryland View from Keyworth Avenue to Upper East Corner of Building (1989)
View from Keyworth Avenue to Upper East Corner of Building (1989)

Louisa May Alcott School, Baltimore Maryland Northeast Entrance at Alley (1989)
Northeast Entrance at Alley (1989)

Louisa May Alcott School, Baltimore Maryland View from Alley to Northeast and Northwest Elevations (1989)
View from Alley to Northeast and Northwest Elevations (1989)

Louisa May Alcott School, Baltimore Maryland View from Alley to Upper North Corner of Building (1989)
View from Alley to Upper North Corner of Building (1989)

Louisa May Alcott School, Baltimore Maryland View from Reisterstown Road of Northwest and Southwest Elevations (1989)
View from Reisterstown Road of Northwest and Southwest Elevations (1989)

Louisa May Alcott School, Baltimore Maryland Looking Northeast to First Floor Hallway from Stairway (1989)
Looking Northeast to First Floor Hallway from Stairway (1989)

Louisa May Alcott School, Baltimore Maryland Looking North in North Corner Classroom on Third Floor (1989)
Looking North in North Corner Classroom on Third Floor (1989)

Louisa May Alcott School, Baltimore Maryland Looking South in North Corner Classroom on Third Floor (1989)
Looking South in North Corner Classroom on Third Floor (1989)

Louisa May Alcott School, Baltimore Maryland Looking Southwest to Third Floor Hallway from Northeast Stairway (1989)
Looking Southwest to Third Floor Hallway from Northeast Stairway (1989)

Louisa May Alcott School, Baltimore Maryland Third Floor Cloakroom from Hallway (1989)
Third Floor Cloakroom from Hallway (1989)

Louisa May Alcott School, Baltimore Maryland Classroom on Third Floor (1989)
Classroom on Third Floor (1989)

Louisa May Alcott School, Baltimore Maryland Northwest Stairway from Third Floor Hallway (1989)
Northwest Stairway from Third Floor Hallway (1989)

Louisa May Alcott School, Baltimore Maryland Looking Southeast Midway in Third Floor Hallway (1989)
Looking Southeast Midway in Third Floor Hallway (1989)

Louisa May Alcott School, Baltimore Maryland Looking East on Basement Landing of Southwest Stairway (1989)
Looking East on Basement Landing of Southwest Stairway (1989)

Louisa May Alcott School, Baltimore Maryland Looking Northeast in Basement Assembly Room (1989)
Looking Northeast in Basement Assembly Room (1989)

Louisa May Alcott School, Baltimore Maryland Looking Southwest in Basement Boiler Room (1989)
Looking Southwest in Basement Boiler Room (1989)

Louisa May Alcott School, Baltimore Maryland Looking Northeast to Basement Exit at Northeast Stairway (1989)
Looking Northeast to Basement Exit at Northeast Stairway (1989)