An Expression of the Community: Cincinnati
Public Schools’ Legacy of Art and Architecture
Photographs by Robert A. Flischel and Essays by Anita Ellis and Walter Langsam
Published by The Art League Press, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2001. 224 pages. Hardcover.
Review by Vance A, Koehler
From the turn of the twentieth century until the beginning of the Great Depression, the United States experienced an unprecedented shift in its rural population to its growing urban centers. Among the changes that occurred because of this cultural evolution was a need to provide larger and better public schools. New attitudes about modern education, especially in the arts and sciences, led to the construction of many impressive elementary and secondary schools across the country. At the time, forward-thinking educators argued that art and beauty were vital tools necessary to instill good, moral character in children. An Expression of the Community visually documents how art and architecture were combined to enhance the curriculum of one American city’s school system?namely, Cincinnati, Ohio.
In Cincinnati, the Art League was instrumental in raising money needed to fund various projects that put fine art into the type of buildings one would generally associate with no-frills, institutional spaces. Through its efforts, an assorted collection of paintings, murals, sculptures and other fixtures were installed in public schools during the 1910s, ’20s, ’30s and early ’40s to enhance, beautify, inspire and teach children through art’s example. The Art League often commissioned many of Cincinnati’s best artists and even encouraged student participation in the selection of the works to be placed at their sites. One finds the fruits of the Art league’s labors depicted throughout this pictorial study.
The book is divided into different sections that explore Cincinnati’s old school buildings through the glorious color photographs of Robert A. Flischel. Plaster and terra cotta friezes, statues, wall murals, and fantastic grotesques are featured in detail, as well as architectural elements like entrance doors, windows, towers and cupolas. Two brief essays?one introducing the diversity of ornament and artistry was written by Anita Ellis, the Cincinnati Art Museum’s Curator of Decorative Arts, and the other was contributed by noted architectural historian Walter E. Langsam?put the schools’ art and architecture into a broader historical context of styles and sources. Many of these structures still function as schools whereas others have been transformed for other uses. A hint of preservation for the future is discernible throughout.
For those whose interests are primarily American art pottery, however, the sections illustrating tiled drinking fountains created especially for these schools will be of great interest. Chief among this work shines the faience tiles and panels made by Cincinnati’s own premiere Rookwood Pottery. One can find a large variety of decorative tiles worked in relief, raised or black outline, or some form of flat mosaic technique defining the decoration of these fountains. A special presentation or dedication plaque has usually been placed among the other decorative tiles to honor a favorite teacher or the presenter of the fountain, often the Art League itself. The inclusion of a few original watercolor sketches from the collection of the Cincinnati Art Museum adds a nice comparison of Rookwood’s original concepts with the completed tiled fountains still in situ.
Many of the Rookwood tiles and architectural faience examples illustrated in the book are associated with one or another of the pottery’s most distinguished artists-decorators, such as William P. McDonald, who headed up the company’s architectural faience department after it was established in 1902. His high-relief panel of jousting knights vividly depicted in beautiful polychrome glazes and set above the entrance of Westwood Elementary is a great testament to Rookwood’s abilities in this area. A series of painted murals illustrating fairy tales, dating from 1928 for the original Condon Elementary, reveal another side of McDonald’s diversity and mastery in art beyond his duties at Rookwood. Also of great interest are the several works attributed to Cincinnati sculptor Clement J. Barnhorn, who often collaborated with Rookwood and designed some of their most striking faience examples, like his "Boy and Dolphin" fountain from 1912 or "Obedience to Authority" World War I lunette.
Not all the tiles and architectural terra cotta found in these Cincinnati schools are the work of Rookwood, however. Many of the elaborate wall fountains illustrated here were made by the Wheatley Tile & Pottery Company, Cincinnati’s other art tile producer during the 1920s (not located across the river in Covington, Kentucky, during this period, as stated in the opening essay!). It is refreshing to discover the excellent quality of Wheatley’s work and how it favorably compares to the more-famous Rookwood’s. Throughout the book one also finds a fascinating variety of glazed and unglazed terra cotta ornamenting the exterior facades of some of these schools which remains un-attributable to maker or designer.
To date, not much attention has been focused on the architectural faience department of America’s foremost art pottery. One has to seek out Herbert Peck’s still-valid landmark The Book of Rookwood Pottery from 1968 to find a thoughtful discussion of their specialized tile work. This important aspect of Rookwood has long been overlooked by writers, and yet, in its day, it received lavish attention by the company’s directors because it added another level of prestige to the pottery, including a grand prize at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. If you are looking for historical details about Rookwood’s faience, you will need to find a copy of Peck’s out-of-print book. Wheatley, too, has been sorely overlooked.
Do not look to this book to shed much light on these historical details either. But, what you will find here is visual information about these important art tile makers and the products that they created. Too few books currently available actually illustrate the intended uses of tiles from this period. None provide a better record of this aspect of Rookwood’s tile work then this one. As photographer and editor Robert Flischel had hoped this book would achieve, An Expression of the Community and bring to light a largely unseen and nearly forgotten community legacy.
Vance A. Koehler has been curator of the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, since 1988. As guest curator for the James A. Michener Art Museum in 1998, he organized "Machinery can’t make Art": The Pottery and Tiles of Henry Chapman Mercer, an exhibition that celebrated the one-hundredth anniversary of the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works. He is currently preparing a book about American tiles of the Arts and Crafts Movement.