Oak Tree School > 2. Designing a Country School

“[We] had a book, called An Age of Barns, by Eric Sloane. And we used to pore over this book because it had square nails in it, hand-made hinges and … all those kinds of things that we were really into in terms of building our own house. But, there was a page in it that was called ‘Continuous Architecture’. And I remember when I saw that, I thought, this is what the school should be like.”

—Shelley Spalding, former teacher, board member, and clerk of the works


In 1971 the newly formed San Juan Ridge Union School District acquired funding to build a new school by passing a local bond measure and receiving matching aid from a State Department of Education program for replacing or retrofitting public school buildings built prior to 1933. The District then proceeded to hire architects compatible with its rural values. A movement toward windowless, industrial-style school buildings had gained popularity since World War II, but the residents of the San Juan Ridge – not too surprisingly – wanted a different kind of school.

Shelley Spalding: There are architects who specialize in just doing school building, because (there is) a lot of bureaucracy and codes and regulations. And so most schools are built by these school architects.

Bruce Boyd: [The choice by the School Board of Zach and Dan] came about through Gary Snyder recommending them. Zach had kept up an interest in the area [after the design of Gary’s house]. They weren’t school architects at all, but they were very much interested in the Ridge – in the idea of this community.

Bob Erickson: They also had been very influential and engaged with the counter-culture movement of the ‘60s in San Francisco. Neither of them was particularly hippieish, but they were mischievous, somewhat radical and wanted to do some interesting things.

Shelley Spalding: Zach was the main spokesperson for Osborne and Stewart. Dan was kind of the quieter, behind the scenes guy.

Bob Erickson: And they got interested in the expansive idea, of a public works project here – to build a new school. The central theme that they were offering – that perhaps the others were not – was to use local labor and local materials. And this was before “locavore.” This was a long time ago. That philosophical premise [was] a source for a lot of the motivating philosophy behind the school project. We wanted to keep the materials from the local neighborhood, and the people who built it would be the people who would use it.

Shelley Spalding: I called Zach up and I said, “I’m with the San Juan Ridge School Board, and we’re going to be building a new school, and we’re interested in interviewing you about building that school.” And his response was, “Wow! Well, that’s really interesting because I think you have the best schools in the country right now!” – which were the old school buildings spread out so they could be neighborhood schools. And he said, “I don’t see why you would want to eliminate those schools.” And I told him, “Well, we may not want to, but it’s being required by law.”

So, he agreed to come up and be interviewed. [School Board member] Idabel Covert was just such a wonderful woman. [She and Board member Gene Stuart] were both very progressive, open-minded people, who had lived all their lives in that rural, Sierra foothills community. The very fact that they interviewed Zach was kind of amazing. And [so was] the fact that, yes, they decided to hire him. He was the person that they wanted to do this. I mean – he was totally different than any of the [other] school architects. Again, he always brought that community aspect, wanting all people – loggers, meditators, ranchers, poets – to be involved. A school can be a community center – a place where people come together. That was very important to him and may have been a really strong selling point. At least in my mind it was, and I can understand how it would have been for Gene and Idabel.

 

CONTINUOUS ARCHITECTURE

Jeff Gold: The design of the school really grew out of some very lengthy dialogues between Osborne and Stewart (and the school board) about the curriculum, the idea of experiential learning, about the importance of arts and crafts, the importance of small group context, the idea of outdoor education, the natural world and how it dovetails with young, elementary school children.

Bruce Boyd: The State – through the [Educational Facilities Laboratory] – was pushing the idea of schools as factories: windowless, big buildings with team-teaching on the inside. And this idea didn’t sit very well with the community.

Jeff Gold: It was not an ideal piece of property for a school. It was not level. It had rock outcrops, and trees, and was an odd shape. And so it didn’t lend itself to what people were calling the “pod school” design – a public school design, which was in favor, and was being mass produced in California through the ‘50s and ‘60s, and even some parts of the ‘70s – coming out of the war to create an efficient, almost factory-like building.

Steve Winkel: Most of our work at Osborne and Stewart grew out of a combination of the site and of the client and of the program – what the building was supposed to do. [Ed. note: Mr. Winkel also served as an apprentice to Osborne and Stewart prior to becoming the on-site inspector for the school construction project.] So we didn’t have any initial concept about what the school should be until we figured out what the client was after and [had] been on the site and gotten a feeling for what the possible solutions would be. And we knew that because of the site, we wanted to do something that was going to be more appropriate to the Ridge – which didn’t have any types of buildings that looked like what the school would have [been] if you were building it in suburban Sacramento or something like that.

Shelley Spalding: [Board member] Sid Herbert and I had a different philosophy about the buildings. We were on opposite ends of the spectrum. He [had a graduate degree] in education. And he wanted the latest in school technology and beliefs, which was that you would have one big classroom where kids would go from station to station. And I wanted to have little, individual buildings scattered around, because I loved the one-room school. So I wanted to bring the essence of that one room school experience. It was fantastic. The older kids played with the younger kids – there was not peer pressure. So Sid and I had very different kind of ideas on how the school should be built, and the resulting Oak Tree School was a compromise embodying some of what Sid wanted and some of what I wanted.

Bruce Boyd: North San Juan [school] was in operation, North Columbia [school] was in operation [and Birchville school was in operation]. So, there was that desire to preserve some of that small-school feeling.

Shelley Spalding: Doc [Dachtler] and I had a book, called An Age of Barns, by Eric Sloane. And we used to pore over this book because it had square nails in it, hand-made hinges and … all those kinds of things that we were really into in terms of building our own house. But, there was a page in it that was called “Continuous Architecture.” And I remember when I saw that, I thought, this is what the school should be like. … [So] I took it to the School Board and I said, “Look! We can do one building, but let’s make it into a series of little buildings, connected.” And so that’s kind of what we did as a compromise.

Bruce Boyd: And [the architect] took that idea… and then did these drawings: “Here’s the windowless school, here’s this continuous architecture design that’s based on a residential scale, which do you want?” The School Board said let’s go with [the continuous architecture].

 

EXISTING MODELS

Steve Winkel: It was very much not the pod school. It was consciously designed to be an aggregation of small buildings with different sized spaces, different characters of space. It was also because of the chosen site location. … It was designed to weave around a number of existing trees on the site without wiping out the trees.

Bob Erickson: Well, [the architects] wanted to use local existing structures as models. They wanted to do a cluster of buildings. They didn’t want to do one building. They didn’t want to do a building that was concrete or brick. They wanted to use the materials that had traditionally been used here.

Bruce Boyd: It was based on a residential scale. Most schools are done by commercial architects to commercial standards … and the budgets are based pretty much on that standard. So looking at it more as a building like the North Columbia Schoolhouse, which is a very light frame, that became … the model of what it should be like.

Bob Erickson: So [in addition to the continuous classroom building], there was a log cabin, there was a five-eighths [scaled] version of the North Columbia School, there was a … lodge that was going to have some timbers in it and some hand-forged iron – so it was really using … the regional architecture that was known. … If you looked in the neighborhood and looked at the little buildings and stuff, you would see the models were close at hand.

Shelley Spalding: I think the replica [of the North Columbia Schoolhouse] was basically just part of that love that Zach had for these old one room schoolhouses. And that they were something to be cherished, and not abandoned and left to fall apart. It’s kind of like taking care of our elders in society: do we abandon them, or do we honor them? And so he wanted to honor that old schoolhouse, which was a hundred years old at least by then, by it becoming a part of the new school building.

Bruce Boyd: And it was like adding a little bit of history to the site. It’s also symbolic of that kind of teaching. … The one-room schoolhouse is an important idea – multiple grades in one space.

Jeff Gold: The State regulatory agencies [and] the County Superintendent of Schools hadn’t seen the school design process lead to a school building like this. … It probably also raised questions [such as] “what’s the curriculum of the school, if this is what the school looks like?” And “is this really a responsible use of tax payer money to build the school with wood siding, and using logs?” And there were a number of things that didn’t add up in their nomenclature of what consisted of a public school, which is a public body which has a certain institutional feel and quality. And this school … was not speaking to those values and language, but one more of homespun learning and the indigenous architecture of the rural community.

 

WORKING DRAWINGS

Bruce Boyd: After working on Gary Snyder’s house – Kitkitdizze – Jeff Gold and I formed a little partnership to build a house down in Malibu. And we were working down there building this house with some of the crew from Kitkitdizze when we got a call from Zach Stewart asking us if we’d be interested in building a school on San Juan Ridge. In 1970, [some of us] had purchased land and had the intention since that time of coming back and settling on the Ridge. So we said, “Sure, we’d be happy to be part of the project.” Not knowing anything more than that. At the time, we knew a little about construction, had done a little design work, but were not accomplished at working in an architect’s office. And it was Dan and Zach’s idea that we would do the drawings – the working drawings – for the project. And that’s how we started our involvement with the project. … Jeff and I worked under contract with Zach and Dan for two years primarily doing the working drawings, getting them through the state, dealing with various issues of lighting, structural [engineering] and the site.

Jeff Gold: The process took about a year-and-a-half or two years to actually go through that design process and get the plans approved.

Bruce Boyd: Division of the State Architect (DSA) … [has] sole responsibility for approving designs for schools. And their process took six months to get through. Very, very highly trained engineers doing plan-checking. And they loved the project to death, which means we’re indebted in all different ways!

Steve Winkel: The reason DSA reviews schools is because of a law called the Field Act, which came into being after the Long Beach earthquake in the ‘30s where a number of schools failed in seismic design. So all schools in California have to be subjected to very rigorous structural analysis to comply with the Field Act, which is enforced by DSA. The San Juan Ridge is not a super active seismic area, … but it does have seismic design criteria as a school, … which are much higher than you would find for any other building in Nevada County.

Bruce Boyd: I remember, we’d worked really hard to get the drawings done Christmas of ’73 … and [Zach Stewart] turned them into the state [on] December 24th, which was something he liked to do! And he got a call the next week from the plan check engineer and told him, “This is a beautiful school! This is going to be fun to look at!” And, of course, they looked at it really, really carefully. … [And with the] elaboration of details and issues, they approved it. And once they approved it then [the School Board had] to go back to the Department of Education State Allocation Board [to] actually approve the funds. It’s quite a process. And then once that was approved, then they could go to bid.

Shelley Spalding: I mean, it was a very unusual project, and how it got shepherded through the State is probably largely a result of my naïveté and Zach’s thoroughness. I remember him saying, “If you know everything that they know, then you can find out how much you can get away with.”