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About the School Buildings Service Photographs Collection


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The School Buildings Service Photograph Collection is a visual record of hundreds of elementary and secondary school buildings across Virginia. This photographic survey was commissioned by the Department of Education beginning in the 1920s as part of the movement to consolidate and reform school systems. The collection includes work by the Department of Education photographers as late as the 1970s. The images are complemented by a collection of architectural drawings of schools that is also in the archives of the Library of Virginia. These were the designs that often replaced the rural buildings recorded in School Buildings Service photographs.

Originally commissioned to ensure that recently established requirements for light, air, sanitation, and fire safety in the newly consolidated and reformed schools were met, the Division of School Buildings assumed the responsibility of designing or accepting plans for the schools. Though slight modifications to the plans could be made to conform to each region's aesthetic preference, the basic plan, designed to positively affect the educational experience of the students, came from the Division of School Buildings.

As a matter of form, school designs and plans are submitted to The Department of Education's Facilities Management Division today, though the individual localities themselves choose and approve designs for their schools.

This survey of 3,100 school photographs varies widely in quality, format, and description. The anonymous photographers apparently were sent into rural Virginia without formal guidelines to use in their recordation of schools. The result is uneven coverage that varies from one locality to another. As an example, more than 300 individual structures are documented in Pittsylvania County. In contrast, there are no photographs from the City of Richmond in the School Buildings Service Collection.

These photographs show a variety of schools in various conditions: derelict and abandoned structures, new schools under construction, and buildings designated "colored" or "Negro" schools. In some cases interior photographs and those taken in schoolyards show the students at study and play.

One of the most valuable aspects of the photograph collection is the documentation of hundreds of small, one and two-room schoolhouses. Often, these were abandoned after school consolidation and have vanished with the passage of time. In many cases the School Buildings Service photographs remain the only record of structures that once were an important feature of rural Virginia communities.

Related Resources

Virginia Dept. of Education, School Buildings Service, Architectural drawings and plans, 1920-1970. Accession 28487. State government records collection, The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Va.

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