Former open air school built between 1928 and 1930 to designs by J. O. Thompson
Reason for Listing
The former Western Park Open Air School, built between 1928 and 1930 to the designs of J. O. Thompson, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
*Rarity: it is a rare surviving example of an open air school.
*Architectural interest: the school demonstrates architectural quality and thoughtfulness of design, notably in the administrative building which uses neo-vernacular motifs to create a homely and domestic yet subtly dramatic effect.
*Plan form: its plan form has remained virtually intact with very few modifications, and all the characteristic elements of the school that express the principles of open air education remain legible.
*Intactness: the interiors retain a high proportion of original fittings and fixtures, including slow combustion stoves, joinery, radiators, fitted cupboards, door and window furniture, allowing for a comprehensive reading of their original configuration and use.
* Setting: the school retains its parkland setting, which was important to the ambience and functioning of the school.
*Historic interest: the school embodies the progressive medical and educational ideas of the period and demonstrates the ambition of the Leicester authorities to provide a suitable education for local children in poor health.
Western Park Open Air School was built between 1928 and 1930 to the designs of James Osbert Thompson (1883-1958), surveyor and architect to the Leicester Education Committee. The contractors were E. Orton and Dalby Ltd of Hugglestone, Leicestershire. The school was built for children who were recovering from debilitating illnesses, particularly of a respiratory nature, and their regime followed the principles established for patients in Swiss sanatoria of moderate exercise, a nutritious diet, rest, and spending as much time as possible in the open air. Its design was influenced by the wider movement to build schools in which high standards of hygiene were as important as educational provision. At the forefront of this movement was George H. Widdows, Chief Architect to Derby County Council, who designed a series of innovative schools, often in a neo-vernacular style, with full-height windows allowing high levels of natural light, and open verandah-style corridors creating effective cross-ventilation. Concern for the health of children found its most extreme expression in open air schools which were found to be particularly beneficial to delicate and tubercular children. This idea had been pioneered in Germany in 1904, and was soon developed in England, most notably by R. G. Kirkby, Bradford’s City Architect, who built his first open air school in 1907. The characteristic staggered classroom plan was pioneered in 1911 at Uffculme School in King’s Heath, Birmingham. By 1939 there were 127 open air schools but after World War II, the advent of anti-biotics and the decline of tuberculosis eliminated the need for them. Instead there was a greater application of open air principals to general English school planning.
The site for the open air school at Western Park was chosen because it was sheltered, south-facing, and offered views of the country and access to the surrounding park. It was described by a contemporary as ‘domestic – quite unlike any ordinary school and a distinct addition to the amenities of the park as well as eminently suitable for its purpose which at the same time harmonises admirably with its rural surroundings’ (Committee Minutes, 1930-31, Appendix A). The school was designed for 180 children who were taught subjects suitable for outdoor teaching, such as horticulture and botany, and they ran or played in the park at intervals throughout the day. They had an afternoon nap on folding beds in the playground, and were given three meals a day. In the Committee Minutes it was explained that the aim of the school was to ‘so train the children that they would eventually become hardy men and women’. The elements of the school had various, sometimes multi-purpose, uses. In the central block, the long, single-storey range contained the multi-purpose dining hall which had trestle tables and two woodwork benches; and the L-shaped building housed the administrative offices. The basement was for deliveries, boilers and tool store; the ground floor contained cloakrooms and spray baths for hydrotherapy treatment, the head teacher’s room, assistant head teacher’s room, stores, and the doctor/ nurse’s room; and the first floor contained the kitchen, scullery and serving room with a lift to transport food to the dining room. The three chalet-style blocks of double classrooms each accommodated 30 pupils. They contained slow combustion stoves which were designed to dry and warm the buildings rather than heat the air, as this was being constantly replaced by virtue of the open air system. The purpose of the long, single-storey range to the south-east is unclear but its form is reminiscent of a marching corridor, and its internal folding partitions indicate that it had a flexible, multi-purpose use. In the early 1930s an additional pavilion-style building in which to store beds was built at the south end of the site.
The school has been subject to several additions over the years. In 1974 a single-storey brick toilet block was built in between two of the chalet classroom buildings, and a series of covered walkways were erected to link together all the elements of the site. A single-storey brick kitchen was added to the east end of the dining hall in the later C20, and a small single-storey block built at the rear of the administration building. The open air school later became a special school which closed down in 2005.
MATERIALS: Generally, the buildings are made from brick, with tiled roofs. Details for each building are given below.
PLAN: The school buildings are laid out on sloping ground which has been formed into three terraces connected by concrete steps and paths. It comprises the following elements: the central block which consists of an L-shaped administrative building of two storeys and a basement, and a long, single-storey, glazed range formerly used as a dining hall; a single-storey building with dormer windows behind this to the north; a group of three chalet-style blocks of double classrooms to the north-west; a long, single-storey, glazed range to the south-east; and a single-storey pavilion-style building to the east, added in the early 1930s. All the elements are linked by covered walkways of plywood construction with plastic glazing, added in 1974, which are not of special interest. There is a playground to the south of the chalet classrooms with tiered borders around the edges; and a paved area to the east of the U-shaped building which leads through a gate to what was probably the vegetable garden. The retaining wall along the north-east boundary is partially buried and overgrown but there are discernible tiers and alcoves constructed out of stone.
EXTERNAL: The administrative building is a domestic, neo-vernacular building, rendered overall, with pitched roofs clad in plain, red ceramic tiles. The south wing of the L-shape has two storeys and a basement. The west elevation consists of two gabled bays: the left one, which projects slightly and has two tiled off-sets on its right side, contains the front door under a plain cambered head. To the left is a two-light casement window with timber glazing bars and tile-creasing at the sill, and above is a tall, four-light window. The fenestration has the same detailing on all the elevations. The right gable has a horizontal four-light window on the ground floor and an eight-light window above. The south elevation presents a gable end with a projecting chimney which has tiled off-sets, a tall brick stack, and a small, hipped oriel with bonnet tiles. To the right is a three-light window, and below are the stairs to the cellar. The east elevation has, from the left, a four-light and a two-light window on the ground floor, and two four-light windows above. On the north and south elevation of the single-storey west wing (which contained the hydrotherapy rooms) is a tall, off-centre, four-light window which rises through the eaves to form a hipped dormer with bonnet tiles. There are small windows at eaves level either side. At the rear of the building is a small, single-storey block constructed of brick, added later in the C20.
INTERNAL: The internal layout of the administrative building has remained virtually unaltered, with the exception of a small section of the balustrade at the top of the staircase which has been truncated to create a cupboard. On the ground floor the two south-facing rooms retain their small, plain, brick stoves; and on the first floor the lift used to transport food down to the dining room survives. The windows, radiators, and joinery, including fitted cupboards, skirting boards, picture rails, and four-panelled doors with their frames and furniture, are almost completely intact.
MULTI-PURPOSE DINING HALL
EXTERNAL: Attached to the east side of the administrative building is a five-bay, glazed, single-storey building, which was formerly used as the multi-purpose dining hall. It is constructed of brick, painted overall, under a steeply pitched roof, clad in red, ceramic plain tiles, which has four hipped dormer windows with bonnet tiles. The main entrance door in the left bay has been replaced with an automatic sliding door but the original frame survives. The next four bays contain the original pairs of glazed double doors with timber glazing bars which allow the room to be completely opened up.
INTERNAL: A lower ceiling has been inserted but the original steel roof trusses are visible above it. The parquet floor is intact. At the east end of the hall a single-storey, brick, flat-roofed kitchen has been added in the late C20. This is not of special interest.
SINGLE-STOREY RANGE TO SOUTH-EAST
EXTERNAL: The long, glazed, single-storey range to the south-east is constructed of brick, painted overall, under a shallow hipped roof clad in brown, composite tiles. The ends of the building slightly project on both fronts: the north-west end has two pairs of glazed doors with timber glazing bars on two sides, and the south-east end is glazed on three sides. The long range in between has twenty bays with double doors in bays one, two, seven, eight, thirteen, fourteen, nineteen and twenty; all but the first are original. The other bays have an eighteen inch plinth, which protected the pupils’ feet from draughts and cold, with pairs of eight-pane casement windows with timber glazing bars above.
INTERNAL: Each end of the building forms a room, that on the south-east side retains its double, folding partition doors, and both have a stove, now blocked up. The long central range is divided into two principal rooms. The steel truss roof and matchboard cladding on the ceiling is intact.
PAVILION TO SOUTH-EAST
EXTERNAL: The single-storey pavilion-style building to the south-east has an irregular U-shaped plan. It is of brick construction, painted overall, under steep roofs clad in plain tiles with bonnet tiles at the hips. The left wing has a centrally placed uPVC door, flanked by large, multi-paned casement windows with metal glazing bars. The return walls have similar fenestration. The middle range contains a part-glazed door, flanked by brick piers, with two-light casement windows either side. The right wing has a three-light window and a replacement door. The interior was not available for inspection.
BUILDING NORTH OF ADMINISTRATIVE BUILDING
EXTERNAL: The single-storey, neo-vernacular building to the north of the administrative block is rectangular on plan and rendered overall. The steep, bonnet-tiled hipped roof is clad in plain, red ceramic tiles, and has three hipped dormer windows, the central one a double window. It has five irregular bays, the first two containing replacement doors, and the latter three containing multi-paned casement windows with timber glazing bars. The original use of the building is unclear and the interior was not available for inspection.
CHALET CLASSROOMS TO NORTH-EAST
EXTERNAL: The group of three chalet-style double classrooms to the north-east are glazed, six-bay, single-storey buildings of brick construction, painted overall. They have steep, bonnet-tiled hipped roofs clad in plain tiles with exposed rafters at the eaves, and a centrally-placed chimney stack on the rear pitch. Above an eighteen inch plinth are continuous multi-paned casement windows with timber glazing bars which allow the rooms to be completely opened up. More light is admitted by the clerestory under the eaves.
INTERNAL: In each of the chalets the scissor-braced steel roof is intact, as are the stoves with their pipework, fitted cupboards, and panelled partition doors (except in the west chalet). The north chalet has had bathrooms inserted.
A small, brick toilet block was built in between the east and west pavilions in 1974. This is not of special interest. Steps lead down from the classrooms to the south-facing playground.
The school is approached over a typical 1930s style concrete bridge with walls curving upwards to the piers which are square on plan and have hipped caps and a frieze suggestive of triglyphs. To the north of the U-shaped pavilion is a subterranean concrete structure which is presumably an air-raid shelter.
Source: English Heritage
Listed building text is © Crown Copyright. Reproduced under licence.