An Unexpected Discovery in the Classroom: 100-Year-Old Blackboard Drawings

Last month, an intriguing set of photographs has surfaced in the online media landscape, documenting a discovery of blackboards preserved since 1917 in several classrooms at Emerson High School in Oklahoma City. The boards were revealed underneath another layer of slates that were dismantled by technicians during renovation works. Surprisingly, the uncovered blackboards featured untouched traces of the lessons taught at the former elementary school, including texts in cursive writing, arithmetic and musical exercises, as well as elaborate illustrations in coloured chalk.[1]
The textual and visual representations drawn in chalk, only partially damaged by adhesive material and holes in the board, offer a unique glimpse into early twentieth-century teaching practices and the everyday in the U.S. public school classroom. While most of the content is related to typical elementary school subjects, some of the information is concerned with daily rituals. For example, one board prominently features a list of personal hygiene rules entitled ‘My Rules To Keep Clean’, while another fragment represents a pledge of allegiance: ‘I give my head, my he[art], and my life to my God, and One nation indivisible with justice for all.’
One of the motifs appearing on several boards is the history of the Pilgrims, the early Plymouth settlers, which is not only represented by a text, but also by illustrations. For instance, there are several colour drawings of a ship that appear to represent the Mayflower, which brought the Pilgrims to North America in 1620.  In addition, a series of simple sketches in white chalk shows figures dressed in traditional Pilgrim clothing. The blackboards also feature large-scale drawings of turkeys, which are situated in the contemporary context by another fragment on the blackboard – a hand-drawn calendar. Despite being already labelled as ‘December’ and including the month’s first day, the calendar displays mostly November dates, with the 29th day, the last Thursday of the month, marked in red to emphasize Thanksgiving holiday.
Two chalk drawings of young girls in pink and blue dresses seem to be one of the latest additions to the blackboards, as they are rendered in rich, bright colours, and one of them is partially layered over an image of a turkey, as if she were feeding it. The representation of the second girl seems to be based on widely circulating popular imagery – an artwork by the illustrator Bessie Pease Gutmann, which was featured on the cover of the Pictorial Review issue of March 1917.[2]The motif of the girl blowing a soap bubble, which might burst at any moment, echoes the delicate and transient nature of the thin chalk layer the drawing is made of.
The most striking aspect of the blackboard discovery lies precisely in the exceptional state of preservation of such an ephemeral medium, which, in its everyday use, is characterized by constantly repeating patterns of inscription and erasure. The chalk drawings and lines are often wiped off with a cloth, eraser or damp sponge even before the next lesson begins, leaving behind no more than smudges and chalk dust on a blank surface.
With signed and dated statements, such as ‘We this day give to this room slate blackboards,’ the school’s janitor and the firm D. J. Gers & Co acknowledged their intervention, while creating a peculiar time capsule. [3] Simultaneously celebrating the arrival of new blackboards and embalming the messages of the past, the authors of the inscriptions were well aware of their historical embedding.
For nearly a hundred years, the original blackboards and their representations have occupied an interstitial space between the wall and the new slate boards. Unnoticed, these interfaces of communication and thought were suspended in space and time, which makes their discovery in the digital age, when interactive whiteboards are being introduced into classrooms, all the more salient. [4] The school district and city officials are now even looking into permanently preserving these fragments of the school’s past.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

[1]For a remarkable instruction booklet for educational blackboard sketching from the beginning of the 20th century, see Whitney, Frederick. Blackboard Sketching, Springfield, MA: Milton Bradley Company, 1909; at https://archive.org/details/blackboardsketch00whit.
[Accessed on 1 July 2015]. Found via http://www.thehistoryblog.com/archives/36940%5D.
[2]http://www.jenx67.com/2015/06/vintage-slate-chalkboard-lessons-from-1917-discovered-in-oklahoma-school.html.
[3] The blackboards were dated and likely covered on November 30th, December 1st and December 4th 1917.
[4] For a brief (personal) history of blackboards in the U.S., see Buzbee, Lewis, ‘The Simple Genius of the Blackboard,’ 15 October 2014, at http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2014/10/a_history_of_the_blackboard_how_the_blackboard_became_an_effective_and_ubiquitous.html [Accessed on 30 June 2015].

On the Demolition of Hotel Praha

Over several months in 2014, large hydraulic scissors were cutting into the monumental steel and concrete structure of Hotel Praha, as the imposing late modern architectural complex was gradually dismantled using sophisticated demolition technology and heavy machinery. The demolition works at the edge of a hillside park and the upscale Hanspaulka neighbourhood in Prague occurred efficiently, without the use of explosives or excessive noise and dust.
The smooth and almost unobtrusive process of destruction was prefigured by a surprisingly fast demolition approval, despite numerous protests of the community of architects, architectural historians and critics as well as the broader public. In January 2013, the first news emerged that the new owner of the hotel, Maraflex Limited, considered tearing down the allegedly economically unviable building to establish new residential housing. A group of architectural experts led by Pavel Karous and Milena Bartlová made an official request to classify the hotel as a cultural monument in February 2013, yet the Ministry of Culture ultimately decided not to begin the process to include the hotel on the cultural heritage list.
The PPF financial group acquired the property in the summer of 2013 and launched a sleek campaign promising the return of a park, dating back to the nineteenth century, as a replacement of the hotel built for the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in 1979–1981.[1] Dismissed for its former function in the service of the Communist Party and its guests, the hotel was labelled a symbol of the former regime, and as such, an undesirable feature in the urban landscape of the Czech capital. A discourse of affect was established, proposing the total erasure of an important marker of recent history in favour of a nostalgic past represented by the park and hill with a beautiful view of the historic centre of Prague.
While the promise of a green urban space unburdened by the reminder of an uncomfortable past may be soothing to some, it does not provide an adequate justification for the destruction of an exceptional architectural work, which also acted as a significant site of cultural memory. As noted by the architectural historian Kateřina Samojská, the hotel was designed as a display of the Czechoslovak socialist regime’s ability to create an extraordinary edifice by relying exclusively on domestic materials and suppliers, and importantly, by allowing leading Czechoslovak architects, designers, and artists to work freely, with a virtually unlimited budget.[2]The architects Jaroslav Paroubek, Radek Černý, and Arnošt Navrátil were thus given an unparalleled opportunity to use high-quality material and experimental methods in building the luxury hotel. Despite its monumental size, the architectural design resonated with its surroundings by mimicking the contours of the hillside and taking a unique shape that produced a sense of undulating movement. The hotel’s interior, furniture, and artworks were conceived in line with the overall architectural design. For example, the fluid form of the central staircase echoed the “liquid” architecture of the building.  As pointed out by Pavel Karous and Ladislav Zikmund-Lender, the project gave rise to a unique Gesamtkunstwerk, a synthesis of artistic elements creating a comprehensive work of art.[3] Some notable pieces specifically designed for the hotel included the Sun, a large-scale glass mosaic by Eliška Rožátová, and works by the renowned glass designer Pavel Hlava or Stanislav Libenský and Jaroslava Brychtová who highly influenced the international studio glass movement. While a large portion of the interior was recently destroyed by its former owners (apparently before PPF’s acquisition of the property), some pieces were acquired by the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague. A heated public debate emerged around the hotel’s architectural and cultural value, as some architects and other members of the public deemed the building to be unaesthetic, too massive, and representing the unwarranted power of the former regime’s state authorities. On the other hand, the architectural qualities and historical importance of the building were advanced by a number of architects, historians, and activists, even gaining international support from acclaimed architectural critics, such as Aaron Betsky, the recently appointed Dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.  Yet the fate of the building was sealed – although the hotel was built to last, its history spanned only slightly more than three decades.
The demolition of Hotel Praha reveals unequal power relations between private and public interests in the urban realm. Petr Kellner, considered to be the wealthiest Czech citizen and PPF’s largest shareholder, is a key figure behind the demolition. While one of his villas is situated in close proximity to the former hotel, he plans to transform the place into a private campus of the Open Gate Primary and Grammar School, run by the The Kellner Family Foundation. While the construction of Hotel Praha represented a display of power and the excesses of the ruling class under socialism, the radical erasure of such a monumental building is a manifestation of the powers of the financial elite, which has emerged from the privatization process of the 1990s. The void left by Hotel Praha opens up a space for thinking through how mid to late twentieth-century architectural and artistic production in Central and Eastern Europe is approached today, while showing the difficulty of preserving recent forms of cultural heritage.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

[1]PPF a.s., Zeleň a park místo hotelu Praha, http://www.parkmistohotelu.cz/
[2] The final cost then amounted to circa 800 million Czechoslovak crowns (more than £21,500,000). For further details and a timeline of the demolition approval process, see Samojská Kateřina, ‘Bourá se (Hotel) Praha,’ in Za starou Prahu: Věstník Klubu Za starou Prahu, XLIII (XIV), no. 1, 2013, pp. 19 – 24.
[3]Zikmund-Lender, Ladislav, ‘Requiem za hotel,’ Deník Referendum, 8 April 2014, http://denikreferendum.cz/clanek/17772-requiem-za-hotel.