Post World War II Collaboration: Robert Billsbrough Price, the American Plywood Association, and Prototype School Designs

By Caroline T. Swope

This article explores the collaboration between the Tacoma, Washington based Douglas Fir Plywood Association and Tacoma architect Robert Billsbrough Price that resulted in Henry F. Hunt Junior High School (1958) and Nell Hoyt Primary School (1959).[1] Both schools served as national prototypes for post-World War II plywood construction, and their designs were widely showcased in national and international publications with significant accolades for design, low cost, and short construction times.
 
Image (left): Henry F. Hunt Junior High School, Robert Billsbrough Price, 1958.  Photo Courtesy of the Tacoma Public Library.  Richards Studio Collection: series A120358-76.
 
The post-World War II babyboom with its resulting need for inexpensive new schools in rapidly expanding suburban areas provided a natural marketing niche for plywood manufacturers. While plywood clearly excelled over traditonal masonry construction in terms of cost and construction speed, it first had to over come decades of educational building practices, which promoted multi-story masonry construction. During the late 19th and early 20th century many urban schools wanted low maintenance structures, and masonry buildings were seen as desirable long term solution to the challenges of building maintenance. Concerns with fire, and loss of life, were substantial enough for school boards to favor the more costly masonry construction. Lastly, property values in heavily urbanized areas also dictated multi-story construction. However, suburban areas with inexpensive land helped reintroduce the one-story school building, which immediately assuaged fears of tightly packed children frantically searching for fire escapes.
 
As part of a broad marketing campaign, the American Plywood Association hired architects to introduce and promote plywood products to the public. Robert Price had a life-long relationship with the American Plywood Association (APA) and was one of six architects hired by the APA to regularly create designs featuring their products. Price designed six schools in Tacoma that showcased plywood construction, and at least five more schools in surrounding districts. A Tacoma native, Robert Billsbrough Price received a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture from the University of Washington in 1946 and a Master of Architecture from MIT in 1948. He then returned to Tacoma and opened his own practice by 1949. In 1956, the firm was featured in Progressive Architecture magazine - the youngest firm featured at that date. Price won 59 national, regional and local awards for design excellence. His ability to keep project costs manageable while designing flexible building types that could easily accept the additions so common in post-World War II era construction are hallmarks of his work. Other projects were featured in a variety of magazines including Sunset, House and Garden, and Architectural Record. Mr. Price was also a visiting professor of design at the University of Washington, the University of Kentucky, and the University of Oregon in the late 1950s and early 1960s and was a guest lecture at the University of Idaho. In 1966 he became the first architect in Tacoma inducted in the AIA College of Fellows.
 
Image (above): Gymnasium construction at Henry F. Hunt Junior High School, Robert Billsbrough Price, 1958. Photo Courtesy of the Tacoma Public Library.  Richards Studio Collection: series D107683
 
Henry Frank Hunt Middle School was designed to hold 700 students.  It was built on Highland Hill, a suburban area of Tacoma that saw rapid development post-World War II. The structure did not have the typical acreage restraints of the district’s more urbanized schools, but it did have budget restrictions and a need for rapid construction. The design of the new school was unusual, and locals weren’t entirely sure what they thought of the campus, particularly the domed “cafetorium.” The building was critiqued by some as looking like a P.T. Barnum circus tent, not only due to its shape, but the orange, blue and gray coloring of its laminated beams. The new gymnasium’s utilitarian design was compared to Old MacDonald’s farm due to the shed like arches topping the structure.
 
Image (right): “Cafetorium” construction at Henry F. Hunt Junior High School, Robert Billsbrough Price, 1958.  Photo Courtesy of the Tacoma Public Library.  Richards Studio Collection: series D108210-6.
 
The “cafetorium,” as the lunchroom and auditorium was called, was an unusual saucer shaped dome cresting the hill above the main campus. The dome covers a 144 foot span with 20 bays formed from huge, curved, 7”x 2” inches glue-laminated beams. Roof costs for this structure were estimated at 15 cents per square foot. The main block of classrooms were constructed from ½” plywood. Large quantities of Texture One-Eleven (commonly known as T 1-11) were used for exterior and interior paneling. The gymnasium had arched stressed-skin panel vaults. Six of the 16 foot glue-laminated arches covered the 98’ x 72’ building. The design for the vaults was unusual and Tacoma school board officials required structural tests before allowing their construction. The Douglas Fir Plywood Association tested a prototype panel which held 7,500 pounds of bricks for a load of 120 psf across the span, more than four times the specified design load. The vaults were fabricated by Peter Bilder of Panel-Bild Systems, in Edmonds, Washington.
 
While the merits of the design may have been questioned by the community, period newspapers lauded the building as an example of “highly individualized wood and plywood design.” Considerable attention was devoted to the building cost, a low $11.54 a square foot, which included sales tax, paving, equipment and fees. Total budget was $850,000. Bids came in 15% below estimates. While comparative numbers have been difficult to locate, statistics from the Educational Facilities Laboratory in 1960 indicated that the median cost per square foot of schools in the West was $14.64. Hunt’s cost of $11.54 represented an amazing 21% reduction in costs. Costs were reduced by eliminating many of the interior corridors, which were replaced by open courtyards and covered exterior corridors. Dimensions were carefully selected to minimize supply waste on the construction site. Price bragged that there wasn’t “an extra piece of plywood lumber in the building – the contractor didn’t have enough left over to build a good fire.”
 
Image (right): The interior of the “cafetorium” at Henry F. Hunt Junior High School, Robert Billsbrough Price, 1958.  Photo Courtesy of the Tacoma Public Library.  Richards Studio Collection: series A130538-14.
 
In September of 1958 more than 100 school officials from all over the United States descended in Tacoma to examine Hunt Junior High School. Members of the National Council on Schoolhouse Construction, which had been meeting in Seattle, drove to Tacoma for tours of the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company, Woodlam, Inc., the Douglas Fir Plywood Association, and the Puget Sound Plywood Company. The conference members represented districts expected to spend more than two billion dollars in new school construction in the next year.
 
National publicity for Hunt included: a citation and visit by the American Association of School Administrators (1958), inclusion in the School Building Architectural Exhibit, by the National Council on School House Construction (1961), and inclusion in the School Buildings Architectural Exhibit sponsored by the American Association of School Administrators, which was shown at regional conventions in San Francisco, St. Louis, and Philadelphia (1961). A filmstrip produced by the American Association of School Administrators featured Hunt in 1961. The building was showcased in several print publications including the Washington State School Director’s Newsletter of 1961, Architectural Record’s “Building Types Study of Schools” (1960), the British publication of Modern American Schools by the Contractor’s Record and Municipal Engineering (1961) and the same German publication that featured Hoyt, Wood in Modern Architecture by Julius Hoffman (1966?). Additionally, construction photographs were ordered by the Douglas Fir Plywood Association, and American Lumberman (Chicago) for their own advertising materials.  While Hunt was designed for a new suburban site, Hoyt was a small building, constructed to supplement an existing urban  historic school. 
 
Nell Hoyt Primary School, constructed in 1959, was associated with Washington Elementary in Tacoma’s Proctor neighborhood. The school was a satellite, built when plans for an addition to Washington proved too costly and time consuming for the rapidly growing school population. The four-room primary school was designed to serve 100 first, second, and third graders. Newspaper reports noted that use of standardized components simplified the job and kept costs at a minimum. Price achieved flexibility in the design by making each classroom, including the roof, an integral unit. This allowed for any number of room combinations to fit specific building needs. Classrooms were covered with dome-shaped, one-piece plywood roofs fabricated from three layers of fir glue laminated plywood. Domes were then sprayed with a polyethylene vinyl coating. Concern over the new roof forms was substantial, and the Tacoma building inspector required the testing of full-scale dome mock-ups to the point of destruction. The main roof had W shaped plywood sections bolted together. The roofs were coated with an epoxy vinyl surface to withstand both moisture and sun. The product, Ren-Coat, was developed by R. I Stevenson Company of Seattle and was marketed by Ren Plastics, Inc. of Lansing, Michigan.
 
Image (above): Construction of the Nell Hoyt Primary School, Robert Billsbrough Price, 1959.  Photo Courtesy of the Tacoma Public Library.  Richards Studio Collection: series A123206-1.
 
The Douglas Fir Plywood Association paid architect and engineering fees for the project. The Hoyt school was the first to utilize the plan, but architects from California and the East coast asked for construction details. The building was well publicized, and received a Merit Award from the Southwest Washington Chapter of the AIA (1962), and the “Nation’s School of the Month Award” from the National School Association (1964). Additional press was received through exhibits, including the American Association of School Administrators’ Architectural Exhibit of 1963 (Atlantic City, New Jersey), the AIA Committee of Schools and Educational Facilities Exhibition of Contemporary School Buildings in 1963 where Price was one of 15 firms invited to participate at the Octagon in Washington, D.C. International exposure came through a number of sources, including a scale model of the school showcased at an architectural exhibition in Moscow (USSR) in 1959 and photos of the school in Julius Hoffman’s German publication of Wood in Modern Architecture (1966). The American Plywood Associational also heavily promoted the design through their magazine, The Timberman, where it was featured on the January 1957 cover and their publicized research project “Schools of the Future.”[2]
 
Image (above): Nell Hoyt Primary School, Robert Billsbrough Price, 1959.  Photo Courtesy of the Tacoma Public Library.  Richards Studio Collection: series A117505-1.
 
By the late 1960s and early 1970s plywood began to lose favor as an exterior envelope material for school construction, perhaps in part due to rising maintenance costs associated with the material. Rising land costs, even in the suburbs, required a return to multi-story buildings, with steel framing. New concerns with school safety requirements led back to enclosed interior hallways. Of the six school buildings designed by Robert Price for the Tacoma school district, only these two examples survive. Hunt is slated for demolition in the near future.
 

Caroline T. Swope, M.S.H.P., Ph.D., is the principal of Kingstree Studios, a cultural resource management firm in Tacoma, Washington.  She has worked with the Tacoma School District for a number of years on surveying historically important buildings owned by the district and preparing a number of local, state, and federal historic register nominations.  
 
[1] Originally formed as the Douglas Plywood Association in 1933, this Tacoma based company changed its name in 1964 to the American Plywood Association. In 1994 the company changed its name again, and is now called the Engineered Wood Association.
[2] Additional publicity: film strips by the American Association of School Administrators featuring Hoyt in 1963, cover of the 1957 School Executive (focusing on roof design), and a write-up on structural design with plywood in the August 1958 edition of Architectural Forum

 

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