Walter Herron Taylor Elementary School, Norfolk Virginia

Date added: July 25, 2022 Categories: Virginia Hospital School
South elevation (1997)

The Walter Herron Taylor Elementary School was designed by Norfolk architect John Kevan Peebles and constructed by Jesse Johnson and Sons in 1916-1917. It opened with twelve classrooms and four additional rooms were completed two years later under a separate contract to Seay Brothers. The school was named for Colonel Walter Herron Taylor, General Robert E. Lee's Assistant Adjutant General during the Civil War and the only Norfolk-born member of Lee's staff. When it closed, W.H. Taylor Elementary was the only remaining school in Norfolk designed by Peebles which is still serving its original function. It was demolished in 1999.

When Taylor School opened on September 10, 1917, with approximately 205 students, it was located on the site of the Core farm. The area, now known as West Ghent, is bounded on the south by Redgate Avenue, on the east by Hampton Boulevard, on the north by the Norfolk and Southern railroad tracks and on the west by the Norfolk and Southern coal yards. West Ghent was developed by the West Ghent Boulevard Company, Inc during the first two decades of the 20th century. It served as an enlargement to the existing Ghent suburb, developed in 1890 by the Norfolk Company. As early as 1900, the Norfolk Company's holdings expanded west past Colley Avenue and into current West Ghent. They developed the area between Redgate Avenue and Ambler Street. By 1914 The West Ghent Boulevard Company had platted the area north of Ambler including the site for the Taylor School.

Many schools were being constructed in Norfolk during the first quarter of the 20th century. As local suburbs grew around the City of Norfolk and absorbed the growing middle class population in the city, each community had its own school. Enrollment in Norfolk Schools grew from 3,028 in 1896 to 16,517 in 1922. This growth mirrored the growth in Norfolk's population which was 67,452 in 1910 and 115,777 in 1920. New schools or extensions for existing schools were being constructed almost every two years during this period. As Henry Rorer, retired superintendent of the Norfolk Schools writes in his history of the schools,

A 20th century phenomenon in Norfolk public school history was the enormous expansion of our school building program. During the 19th century period of 1801-1900 the total expenditure for school buildings was $193,445 or an average annual expenditure of $1,934. During the first 12 years of the 20th century (1901-12) the total expenditure for buildings was $442,085 or an average annual expenditure of $37,673. This represents an annual increase of 1600%. In other words, after 1900 the city spent each month more than it had formerly spent on buildings during an entire year.

The need for more classrooms existing long before this building program began, and a major factor in bringing about the 20th century building program was an increasing public recognition of the value of our public schools.

At this time, John Kevan Peebles was a prominent architect. The Walter Herron Taylor Elementary School was the sixth school-related construction commission that Peebles received in the Norfolk area and is the earliest remaining school of his collection still serving its original function. Peebles was also responsible for designing J.E. B. Stuart School (1919-1922) located in the Colonial Place neighborhood, now used for gifted and other special programs, and the addition to Lafayette School, now an apartment building. Lafayette, Taylor and J.E.B. Stuart are the only remaining school buildings of the nine known schools designed by Peebles in Norfolk.

John Kevan Peebles (1866-1934) had a recognized body of work in Virginia. He was a native of Petersburg and studied engineering at the University of Virginia receiving his degree in 1890. He remained at the University of Virginia until 1892, teaching applied mathematics. He moved to Norfolk in 1892 and immediately acquired prominent commissions in the city including Ohef Sholom Temple, and the Royster house. Among his most successful commissions are the numerous buildings he designed on the University of Virginia campus, alterations and additions Virginia State Capital and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. He was also the chairman of the architectural design board of the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition of 1907.

Walter Herron Taylor School is a departure to some extent from Peebles' more classically inspired architecture. The school has a more utilitarian feel, with its materials clearly expressed. Its plan and features, particularly its large exterior windows and interior windows to the halls, emphasize the functional needs for light and circulation. Peebles also included an auditorium, not typical in school design of the era, which became a focal point community activities beyond the school's uses. However, even with its emphasis on pragmatic issues, the design does have a type of formal classicism in its strict symmetry and the dominance of the central almost ceremonial entrance leading into the auditorium with stairs on either side leading to classrooms. The symmetry is also evident in the 5 bay facade with a parapet rising to a classically inspired triangular pediment above the central bay.

The use of clearly expressed materials and the stripped down classicism emphasizing the building's function may have been a response to the surrounding community. Homes in the West Ghent neighborhood are largely classical revival in style, but more modest in scale and massing than the more prominent homes along the Hague and Stockley Gardens in Ghent. By adopting an unpretentious design, particularly in exterior elevations, Peebles was sympathetic to the surrounding architecture in the nascent community.

A year after the school opened, it was closed from 3 October to 4 November and used as a hospital during the Spanish Flu epidemic.

The Spanish Influenza epidemic claimed over 30 million deaths throughout the world during the period of 1917-1918. The worst epidemic in U.S. History, it took over 600,000 deaths with 550,000 occurring during an intense ten month period. Victims died both from the flu itself and from related pneumonia. The nation suffered this catastrophe during the waning months of WW I when most doctors and medical personnel were abroad as part of the war effort. In the month of October 1918 there were over 195,000 influenza related deaths in the United States. By early November the scourge lessened considerably and vanished as quickly and mysteriously as it had arrived.

The influenza epidemic in Norfolk, Virginia mirrored the experience of the epidemic in the country at large. Norfolk was particularly vulnerable because of a marked increase in population. Troops and shipyard workers mobilized for the war effort had flooded the area. Norfolk's population had grown from approximately 94,000 persons in the fall of 1916 to 136,500 the following fall. Close quarters aided the spread of the infectious disease and infrastructure and public services could not satisfy the growing demands placed on them.

By 3 October of 1918, the Spanish Influenza had reached grave proportions in Norfolk. The health commissioner ordered all schools and picture theaters closed to try to stem the spread of the disease. Public dancing was banned, dance halls closed and places of worship were requested to discontinue services, which they did. Norfolk's four hospitals were taxed beyond capacity. By 5 October, when Health Commissioner Powhatan W. Schenk ordered that the Taylor school be open as an emergency hospital, the number of official cases was 1,414 and the deaths were 25. Red Cross nurses were requested from Washington but were unavailable having been pressed into service in Washington where the flu was raging. The health commissioner canvassed the city for cots at the makeshift hospital.

Most of the patients housed at Taylor were indigent and could not be cared for in local hospitals. The Red Cross installed beds in six of the classrooms on the first floor and a morgue in two classrooms. Members of the PTA prepared food for the sick in the basement lunchroom.

The influenza epidemic left Norfolk as quickly as it had arrived. Between 28 September and 4 November 1917, 562 Norfolk citizens had died. There were 1,025 official reported cases with the unofficial tally much higher.

During the 1960's, Taylor School was designated an emergency fallout shelter by the Civil Defense Agency. The school was provided with supplies to support three hundred eighty-two people for one week. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, an emergency truckload of food was delivered to the school.