The Heathcote School: Progressive Design for Now and Then

heathcoteretroIn the days before mid-century architecture became retro, it was considered modern. And when it was built in 1954, the Heathcote School in Scarsdale set the standard for modern school design. Last week, a busload of architects from the firm Perkins + Will, who designed the original school, came to tour this landmark.
Designed by Lawrence B. Perkins, the progressive layout included four pods or clusters, rather than perpendicular hallways lined with classrooms. Each pod included classrooms and a central meeting space that could be used for flexible learning. The exterior walls of the school were made with glass rather than brick to bring the outside inside.

PerkinsHagermanPurvisBrad Perkins, a Scarsdale resident who is the son of the architect and an architect himself, greeted the visitors and explained that the Heathcote School was the second innovative school that his father designed. The first was Crow Island, in Winnetka Illinois, another landmark school that coincidentally is the previous home of Scarsdale's new superintendent, Thomas Hagerman.

Built in 1941, Crow Island shares many features with Heathcote. crowisland1It too was designed by Lawrence B. Perkins – who worked with famed architect Eero Saarinen. Classrooms were grouped in three separate wings according to age and connected by a core of rooms for common use: the auditorium, library, gym, activities room, administration, and so forth. The grounds and play area extending from the classroom wings were also zoned according to age groups to allow for increased freedom and greater safety in play activities. The school won the American Institute of Architects' 25-Year Award, an award that had been given only once before, to the Rockefeller Center in New York City.

We had the pleasure of touring the Heathcote School with the architects, and here is what we learned from Joan Blumenfeld of Perkins + Will. The design of the Heathcote School was a departure from traditional school plans. Some of the design elements that were unique and forward-thinking at the time include:

heathcote2All of these features are emulated in school design today.

Some of the features of the school did not stand the test of time. The classrooms were designed for small groups, and there was less "stuff" in them when they were designed, so that they are now a bit cramped, and have inadequate storage space. The lighting and ventilation has been upgraded and the windows have been replaced with more energy efficient models. Technology has been added on, as there was little or none when the school was designed, but as a result it is not well integrated.

We wondered why the school has no cafeteria and were told that at the time Heathcote was built, there was no need for a cafeteria as mothers did not work and children went home for lunch.

Some Scarsdale residents might ask about the relationship between Perkins +Will, the firm that designed the Heathcote School and Perkins Eastman, the firm that designed the new commercial building at the Heathcote Five Corners. Perkins+Will was headed by Larry Perkins and Phil Will when they designed Heathcote School, built in 1953. By the 1980's they had retired and were succeeded by a number of other partners, among them Larry Perkins' son, Brad Perkins. Brad Perkins, along with Mary Jane Eastman, split off from Perkins+Will to form their own firm, eventually named Perkins Eastman, in 1981. The building on Palmer Avenue is by Brad Perkins, along with a local partner.