Building Description Walter Herron Taylor Elementary School, Norfolk Virginia
W. H. Taylor School is a three story elementary school completed and opened in 1917. The school has approximately 42,000 square feet of floor space, 19,000 of which is the actual footprint on the site. The first floor is approximately 32 inches below the average surrounding grade. The middle floor is approximately ten and one half feet above the lowest level, or about seven feet above the surrounding grade, with the exception of the ceremonial main entrance and lobby. The entrance is located in the center of the south elevation, is approximately twenty feet wide, is two feet above grade, and it connects the main entrance to the auditorium. Where this lobby crosses the corridor there are matching stairs on each side up to the main second floor level. The third floor is all one level, approximately fourteen feet above the second level.
The general organization of the plan for the building is based on the location of classrooms on the top two floors surrounding the auditorium. The corridors on each floor form a modified "H" shape. Two short legs run from the center corridor to the south creating the two projecting wings at the front of the school. Two long legs run along the east and west sides of the auditorium. There are three classrooms along each of these side wings on the second and third floors. In the middle section of the "H" there is a classroom on either side of a central element. On the second floor, the element is the entry hall leading into the auditorium. On the third floor, there is a classroom above the entry.
The finishes inside the building include terrazzo floors on the second and third floor corridors and painted plaster walls and ceilings throughout. The current floors in the classrooms are a resilient tile installed over wood sleepers and substrate. Because of the recessed classroom floor slab, it is likely that the original classroom finished floors were wood on sleepers. The walls shared by the classrooms and corridors have a series of 3' X 3' windows located about five feet above the floor. The window sash in unpainted, stained wood with muntins set in a four over four pattern. The pattern is very similar to that pattern in the windows facing a garden in the old wing of the Chrysler Museum of Art, also designed by Peebles. The interior windows allow natural light to enter the corridors. They also have the effect of opening up the corridors, so that space seems to flow from room to room, eliminating the sense of being closed in. Adjacent to these windows are oversized wood classroom doors with large single lights, making another visual connection between corridor and classroom. Other interior doors which have no glass are wood and have six vertical panels. Third floor walls shared by the auditorium and the corridors have scenes of relief figures in plaster. These provide points of visual interest and historical reference.
The auditorium once filled the entire center of the school. Today the original space is split in two. This was done to provide for a media center. The stage and surrounding woodwork appear to be original. Of additional interest is the mural "The Landing at Jamestown" by G. Lattimer Davis to the left of the stage.
The concrete structure itself is clearly expressed in the corridor walls and ceiling as both columns and beams protrude from the surrounding surface. This is an architecture of economy, as the articulation of the structure becomes part of the ornament.
The load bearing parts of the building appear to all be reinforced concrete. Research by the City of Norfolk indicates continuous spread concrete footings. Concrete foundation walls appear to bear directly on the footings with the concrete columns cast right into those walls. The structural loads from the floors and walls are held by the columns and beams. The three floors and roof are all cast-in-place structural concrete slabs. The roof is flat. It should be noted that a building with a complete reinforced concrete structure, while rare in some places in 1917, was somewhat typical in port cities such as Norfolk because of its use in warehouses.
On the exterior elevations, Taylor clearly expresses in its large windows that it is a school house. These windows, originally wood double hung, are arranged in groups of five. The original and replacement classroom windows are all twelve over twelve. Two groups are in each classroom. Originally providing fresh air and light, the metal sash replacements still provide as much natural light as any classroom windows in the city. The main entrance at the center is now an aluminum storefront double door. Alumni of the school, however, remember an entrance with sash patterns quite similar to the corridor transoms.
The choice of materials is consistent with the straightforward architecture created by the design strategies mentioned above and probably necessitated by the budget constraints of the school board. Cream colored stucco on a brick substrate provides the exterior finish for the top two thirds of the exterior walls, while the bottom third is a bark brown/red brick with a slightly rough texture. As was customary, the stucco was applied directly to a brick substrate. The stucco has a texture consistent with a finish created while it was still fairly wet. The coping around the top of the wall is the brick turned in a continuous soldier course. At the front of the building directly above the entrance there is a slight rise in the top of the wall to form a very slight gable silhouette.
The stucco finish and the rough texture of the brick derive more from the arts and crafts movement than the more popular classical detailing of most public buildings of the day. Very popular as a look for bungalows in other parts of the country, the detailing of the arts and crafts movement lent itself to a simpler appearance than the classical or colonial revival. Because of this simpler detailing, there was a greater freedom in developing the massing required by the plan and in maintaining the economy necessitated by the budget.
The influence of this school's siting began when the City of Norfolk acquired property for a school in the central location of the then empty twenty year old West Ghent subdivision. The building, play grounds, and connections to the surrounding streets and homes influenced the development of the neighborhood. West Ghent is one of the earliest planned neighborhoods in Norfolk. It was laid out in accordance with the planning strategies of the developing American suburbs at the turn of the century. The school immediately became a catalyst for development; as soon as it was finished the neighborhood quickly began to fill in. In the year after Taylor's opening, upwards of fifty houses were under construction to the immediate north of the school, according to contemporary accounts. Taylor's impact upon the location of the surrounding streets is even more direct. Through the early efforts of the P.T.A., the playground moved from its original location north of the building to the south side of the school, negating the planned extension of Baldwin Avenue in order to provide the space. This also had the effect of ending efforts to move the playground west of the school and allowing for the purchase of land to connect Claremont Avenue from Princess Anne Road to Spotswood Road.