In the fall of 1935, 200 students entered a new type of classroom at Corona Avenue Elementary School in southeast Los Angeles. The press called the classrooms “glass-and-garden rooms,” as each featured a movable glass wall that slid open onto broad patios and gardens. Students were able to easily push their own lightweight chairs and desks right outside for lessons on the lawn. Ample high windows across from the glass walls doubled access to fresh air and light, and the seven classrooms in the new L-shaped wing were linked by an innovative flat-roofed outdoor hallway.
This may not sound like a radical idea; many schools in California now have one-story classrooms with lots of windows and flat-roofed outdoor hallways. But at the time it was a startling change, garnering international press. Local residents said the new building resembled “an airplane hangar” or even “a penthouse on Mars.”
Designed by modernist architect Richard Neutra, the new classrooms signaled a major break from conventional American school design. School architecture typically followed an East Coast model, in which classrooms and interior halls were enclosed within a several-story building of thick brick or stone, with desks and chairs bolted to the floor. Neutra’s flexible, indoor/outdoor scheme instead took full advantage of the mild climate and ample space of southern California.
Commissioned by the city’s school board, Corona Avenue Elementary School was referred to as a “test-tube school” for its experimental nature. They felt it was high time school architecture caught up to the advances of progressive educational theory and child psychology, which promoted education that “revolved around the child,” and encouraged critical thinking instead of rote indoctrination. The school’s principal, Georgina D. Ritchie, said the new classrooms gave students a feeling of freedom in their studies, unlike the restrictions imparted by the four walls of a conventional classroom. She declared the school “a distinct improvement from the standpoint of health, safety, and educational opportunity.”
We don’t usually think about school buildings as having an impact on students’ health. But at the time this was a common, and urgent, concern. Since the mid-19th century, doctors and public health officials had confirmed that certain incurable, widespread illnesses, such as cholera and tuberculosis, were concentrated in urban areas where people lived, worked, or attended school in dim, crowded conditions. Contagion was compounded by poor ventilation, while a lack of sun exposure was believed to weaken the body’s immunity.
An American education journal from 1916 notes that sending children afflicted with tuberculosis, anemia, or otherwise ill children to an indoor school—which it describes as sometimes dusty, overheated, and badly ventilated—could be “very injurious.” It noted ominously, “The education of the schools is important, but life and health are more important.”
In response to this, the open-air school movement was born, which promoted fresh air and exposure to nature. Open-air schools allowed students to spend the day mostly outdoors absorbing strengthening rays of sunlight.
Sometimes, open-air schools were merely little wooden pavilions erected outdoors. This was the case for what is considered the first example, the Waldschule für kränkliche Kinder (Forest School for Sickly Children) founded in Charlottenburg, Germany in 1904 for city children at high risk of contracting tuberculosis. The idea spread quickly throughout Europe and the United States, and the architectural style evolved. By the late 1920s, modernist architects were designing groundbreaking schools like the glassy, multi-story Open Air School for Healthy Children in Amsterdam by Jan Duiker (still in use today), which Neutra visited, and the sleek Hessian Hills School by Howe and Lescaze in Croton, New York.
Neutra’s addition to Corona Avenue Elementary School was not strictly conceived as an open-air school, but he shared the common belief that buildings emphasizing access to sun and fresh air made their residents healthier, both physically and mentally. Fourteen years after the new wing opened, Principal Ritchie said she had “yet to find in Los Angeles, or anywhere else, a building which can measure up to the primary grade buildings at Corona.”
In 1953, when architectural photographer Julius Shulman visited the school, he captured the students enjoying their bucolic outdoor classrooms, showing how the flexibility of the design added to the creativity and independence of the students. The girls, wearing bows and dresses, and the boys with buzz cuts and overalls, sit cross-legged on the lawn holding paper on their laps, perhaps awaiting a drawing activity. In Shulman’s color photograph (see top of this page), older students have brought their chairs outside to sit in the sun and watch their teacher explain a lesson from a movable display board. We see the bright green paint on the outside of the sliding glass wall, a cheerful color that complements the verdant shade tree, while children in small groups listen to a lesson or paint alfresco on easels. A ball lies on the grass near glass-and-garden rooms, ready for outside play.