The following brief paper responds to the July 30, 2018 letter written by Ken Lefebvre to the Planning Board regarding demolition of the John J. Lynch School. One factor in favor of demolition according to Lefebvre is the structure’s “lack of ties to any prominent Holyoke architect.” I was baffled by this standard because it ignores the historical architectural significance of the structure itself as well as the historical significance of the architects who designed it. By this standard “Falling Waters” should be allowed to collapse because Frank Lloyd Wright was not a local resident.
During more than 20 years of visiting Holyoke prior to moving here, I could see that the John J. Lynch School building stood out as the only large scale example of American Modernist design in Holyoke. Faced with Lefebvre’s statement I decided to investigate the origins of the building with the purpose of understanding its importance. Using the appropriate files in the Holyoke Public Library History Room, I have prepared a brief paper discussing the architecture of the Lynch School, its historical relevance and the importance of its designers.
This brief review has led me to conclude that:
The John J. Lynch School was dedicated on February 6, 1953. One of the dignitary speakers was P. Roy Brammell, the Dean of the University of Connecticut School of Education. The presence of this important educator was no accident because the new building itself was the subject of considerable acclaim. It was described as “One of the foremost modern multipurpose … schools in the Commonwealth.” The goal of the project was the integration of every aspect of learning including different educational goals. This outcome was to be reached, in part, by applying state-of-the-art design principles of 20th Century architecture.
When the structure was completed in 1953 commentators took note of its advanced design features (many of which remain in tact today). The Lynch School combined aspects of the Modernist Movement that spearheaded American design. Starting in the 1920’s the best modern architects focused on achieving functional goals through design. The use of natural light for creating bright, inviting interiors became a universal focus. The numerous windows of the Lynch School were a planned attempt to alleviate the lack of light in formerly standard classroom design. Concerned with promoting a positive learning atmosphere, the designers also augmented natural light with stronger than normal artificial light sources.
Interest in light went beyond windows and electric fixtures. The designers selected the colors of the internal bricks (green glazed) and the tiles (tan). The importance of light also was emphasized in the visual focal point of the school: its entranceway. The colonnade was topped with a series of 5 translucent domes placed to let light pass through to spotlight the entrance.
In other ways the John J. Lynch School building embodied American Modernist architectural design. “Simplicity and practicality” were used to achieve goals directly without interference from unneeded impediments. One example was the tiered floor of the spacious auditorium which allowed for unobstructed viewing and also for easy removal of the seating when another function was planned. Another example was the built-in bookshelves in every classroom.
The emphasis on functionality did not mean the Lynch School was devoid of visually pleasing elements and adornments. Doors were beautifully designed and executed. Iron work, was futuristic and geometric. The rounded front and colonnade was visually attracting and placed to set off and lead into the adjacent wings. In summary, the building as a whole and its various elements were developed in accord with the most advanced design principles of the period.
In November, 1945, Holyoke Mayor Henry J. Toepfert was presented with revised designs for the structure that would be called the John J. Lynch School. He compared the proposed building with its immediate surroundings and said it would be “like putting a diamond on an ash heap.” He was commenting both on the surrounding structures (the “ash heap”) and on the beautiful design (the “diamond”) submitted by Kilham, Hopkins and Greeley of Boston. That architectural firm was described by Holyoke Superintendent of Schools Peck as having “done the most significant school work in Massachusetts the past ten years.”
In fact, Kilham, Hopkins and Greeley had been one of the state’s leading architectural firms for decades. It was founded around the year 1900 by Walter H. Kilham and James C. Hopkins. William Rogers Greeley joined the company in 1916 and Walter S. Brodie came on board in 1945. Greeley, assisted by Brodie, was the principle designer of the Lynch School. By 1918 this firm had acquired an enviable and lasting reputation for progressive design (see Richard M. Candee and Greer Hardwicke, Early Twentieth Century Reform Housing by Kilham and Hopkins, Architects of Boston, University of Chicago Press, 1987).
William Greeley, lead designer of the Lynch School, was a much acclaimed and highly respected architect in Massachusetts. He was a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and served as President of the New England Planning Association. He also wrote two books on architecture and was the lead designer on several Massachusetts landmarks.
During the first decades of its work the company steadily incorporated new principles into traditional designs. When design theory and style changed during the 1930’s and 1940’s the firm of Kilham, Hopkins and Greeley were at the forefront of the new ideas. For example they shifted from more traditional design used for of the Braintree School completed in 1930 to Modernist principles for the well known Community Sailing Boat House finished in Boston in 1941 and still in use today. By the time it won the bid for the proposed school in Holyoke and submitted revised plans in 1946, Kilham, Hopkins and Greeley was well known for its cutting edge design.