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Project at a Glance

Middletown, New York
Paul Rudolph
Advocacy Status:
It was my intention to have each one of these roofs—the ceilings underneath—painted a different color…right through the color spectrum. And for economic reasons we had to paint it all white…I wanted it to be like an Arabian tent. I wanted it to be very festive for the children. I wanted to transport the child into another world.
— Paul Rudolph, interview with John Cook, 11/19/1969


John W. Chorley Elementary School is the one building Paul Rudolph designed that is scaled specifically to children. It is an internal landscape of open classrooms, referred to at the time as the “continuous progress plan,” because of its focus on the limitless potential of its pupils. Today Chorley Elementary is facing a fate almost identical to Rudolph’s Riverview High School in Sarasota, FL: demolition not for another school building, but for a bus parking lot.

Chorley Elementary’s landscape of open classrooms is naturally lit by saw-tooth clerestory windows reminiscent of the factory buildings dotting the nearby Hudson River. The classrooms sweep into one another, following the site’s natural contours. Each is separated by operable walls and overseen by teachers’ planning centers perched above each of four classroom wings. Although built for 900 students and situated on a 17-acre site, the discrete staggering of the instructional wings along a shifted spine of spaces for centralized activities—art, music, guidance, physical education and administration—maintains a domestic feel throughout the expansive complex. Each classroom has its own door to the exterior and is open to the other classrooms in the wing, allowing teachers the flexibility to monitor up to eight classes at once. At its 1969 dedication Superintendent of schools John L. Krause wrote “Let us hope that forty years hence people will be commenting favorably on the foresight of this community during the ‘60’s.”

The buildings are constructed of Rudolph’s trademark fluted concrete block and light-gauge steel trusses. Yet Rudolph, the staunch brutalist, regretted the building’s softness: “too sweet, too sentimental…it’s very sympathetic to the child.” He often wished that the site, to which he carefully stepped and contoured the building, had presented a more severe grade.

On December 18, 2008, almost 40 years after the school’s dedication, the voters of the Middletown Enlarged School District passed a referendum (428 yes/238 no) in favor of acquiring additional contiguous property to build a new school. Unbeknownst to the school board a provision was included for the demolition of the existing Chorley Elementary. No consideration was given to integration or reuse of the flexible Chorley buildings for other educational or community use, or to their sale for education-related development. This despite the fact that the new school buildings and parking would not require the land Chorley Elementary sits on.

The New York State SHPO has determined the Chorley Elementary School eligible for State and National Register listing. In January 2010, the Preservation League of New York State added Chorley Elementary to its 2010 “Seven to Save” list—only the fourth modern building to have made the list. The Paul Rudolph Foundation has been the most active advocate for saving Chorley Elementary, from FOIL requests to discern the details of the School District actions to building an architectural model and organizing a well-attended panel discussion in conjunction with the AIA NY Center for Architecture’s “Modernism At Risk” exhibit. The Foundation’s website has the most comprehensive information and image gallery. Inquiries to aid preservation efforts can be made to the Paul Rudolph Foundation:

—Sean Khorsandi, January 2010

August 2010 Update

The Middletown Enlarged School District is moving forward with its plans and construction of the new school is underway. Chorley could be replaced as soon as the 2011-2012 school year with an asphalt lot for bus parking.