Education in the early decades of Utah’s settlement was a very informal affair. Each Mormon
settlement organized its own school and hired a teacher. For the most part, students attended school in small buildings that also housed church meetings, dances, and other community functions.
As early as 1867, Congregational, Presbyterian, and Methodist missions established private elementary and secondary schools. These were intended to counterbalance Mormon-controlled schools. With well-trained teachers and free tuition, they attracted many Mormon students.
In 1890, the territorial legislature voted to establish free, tax-supported schools, with higher standards for teachers. Once this was accomplished, standardized school buildings were built throughout the state based on population requirements. Since then, school buildings have gone through various forms based on educational requirements, architectural trends, and population fluctuations.
Early schoolhouses built following the education reform of the late 19th century were not particularly large buildings and usually had only a couple of rooms. Constructed of brick and usually resting on a raised foundation of stone or concrete, most of these buildings have a hipped or pyramidal roof–sometimes with projecting bays, particularly over the front entrance–which may have a small bell tower on top.
The design is fairly simple and symmetrical with a central entrance flanked by an even number of bays on either side. Because of the era, builders used Victorian eclectic styles, with hints of Romanesque revival and classicism. The schoolhouse was especially popular in smaller towns and suburbs with modest school-age populations.
In larger communities, the schoolhouse proved inadequate to house the larger population of school-age children. These communities built larger school buildings, typically with two or three levels. As its name suggest, the school block is block-like in appearance, about as tall as it is wide, usually with a pyramidal or hipped roof. This type was an improvement in updated design of the earlier, more rustic and makeshift schoolhouses, which often had multiple uses.
Continued population increases in larger cities required even more space in schools. The architectural response to this was to expand out. The horizontal school type is easily recognized by its multi-story, broad presence on the site. The building entrance is typically in the center of the rectangular primary façade, often at the top of a large stairway. As with the school blocks, the walls on horizontal schools are punctuated by multiple windows to allow light into the individual classrooms, which are situated along single or double-loaded corridors. Sometimes, wings off the rear of the building allow for more window area in classrooms.
Along with the school building, the campus might include other buildings, including heating plants and workshops. Because the majority of these school buildings were constructed in the 1920s-1930s, architects incorporated various classical and period revival styles into their designs.
The baby boom following World War II resulted in a vast increase of school-age children by about 1950. This, coupled with the increased residential expansion into the suburbs, created a demand for local schools. Previously, children had been bussed from outlying areas to the large schools in the cities, but more children in the suburbs made it feasible to build schools in these residential tracts.
Since the schools were serving fewer children per building, they could be smaller than the large horizontal schools in the cities. Architectural styles of the time eschewed the classical and period revival styles for a simple, modernist influence on these single-story buildings with sprawling wings. Most of the examples also have a large section with a taller roof that houses a combination gymnasium, stage, and lunchroom.
Typically set far back of the street and surrounded by large expanses of lawn, the horizontal schools blend in to their suburban surroundings. As demographics in suburban neighborhoods continue to change, many of these schools have been closed and demolished in recent years.