All I Really Need to Know
Simple and profound lessons from the work of Louis Voorhees
By Peter Freeman
Wash your hands before you eat.
Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
Live a balanced life — learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
Take a nap every afternoon.
When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together . . .
Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.
— Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I Learned In Kindergarten
With some luck, the straightforward and powerful lessons we learned from kindergarten remain with us. Of course, I loved the swing set, games, the cookies and punch, and even naptime. I remember that painting was important and that my teacher, Mrs. Voorhees, spent a long time showing me appropriate colors for a tree I was painting, and that the limbs of the tree were commanding and magnificent and should be depicted that way. But more important, I felt safe, I felt like I mattered, and I was in a place that promoted learning. I was encouraged to be curious.
What I didn’t know then was that a deliberate intent for me to find independence had been built into the space that surrounded me. I learned how to easily gather up my own art supplies, which would serve as the tools of my enrichment. I also learned that I could navigate my way to the restroom or reach the sink to wash up — something that was also quite literally by design. I was surrounded by architectural cues so I could command the space around me. At the time I didn’t know it was all by design. I just knew that I could easily grasp the Play-Doh or clean up after splattering paint. I vaguely remember the teacher bending down to walk through the doorway to the classroom while my classmates and I easily raced down the stairs to be the first ones on the monkey bars on the playground outside. Much later it dawned on me that the place of my early wonder years had been carefully designed and specifically with smaller people in mind.
My kindergarten teacher’s husband, Louis Voorhees, was an important High Point architect with many commissions grander in scale than the small kindergarten cottage he designed behind his family Colonial Revival home in Emerywood. For instance, he had designed the 1938 Guilford County Courthouse, the High Point Friends Meeting House, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, the U.S. Post Office Building in High Point and the High Point Public Library, among others. But I daresay the impact of the kid-scaled space that was called the Town and Country Kindergarten had a profound effect on those of us who were lucky enough to attend it.
Not to take anything away from the gentle lessons and creative spirit of Elizabeth Voorhees and her colleague Martha Adkins. In fact, just the opposite, as I believe Louis Voorhees’ thoughtfully scaled space with child-height countertops, doorways and furniture enhanced the lessons of these giving and talented teachers. The Voorheeses’ vision of early childhood education put the child at the center of the learning environment, a place geared toward little hands, little feet and growing minds.
In addition to scale, Louis Voorhees brought a sense of whimsy and charm to the kindergarten classroom. The space was adorned with paintings of brightly colored landscapes and simple forms, all by the architect’s hand. The memorable painting of Winnie the Pooh once displayed in the kindergarten cottage now has a prominent place in the collection of High Point’s Theatre Arts Gallery, which showcased Voorhees’ talent in a recent exhibition of his work.
The same consideration for scale, whimsy and user-friendly details is evident in the Little Red Schoolhouse, moved to and preserved on the grounds of the High Point Museum in 2016. In 1930, the Ray Street Elementary School was crowded and needed to expand to accommodate a growing student body. Rather than bite off an expensive addition to the school, the High Point school system commissioned Louis Voorhees to design and build a single classroom. The structure was constructed with repurposed lumber from houses that were being demolished. Voorhees took particular interest in the project and designed the space similar to the self-contained single-room schoolhouses that were common in smaller communities across the U.S. at the time of his childhood. The building is a thoughtfully scaled and detailed structure with a bay reading window. Similar to the kindergarten of my youth, the size of the space, door openings, windows and trim are gauged to the user in a way that is comfortable and friendly. The detailing is familiar so as not to distract students from learning. Both of my parents attended Ray Street Elementary School and fondly recalled not only their excitement of being assigned to the Little Red Schoolhouse, but also their impressions of Elizabeth Voorhees, who taught first grade at that time. What a far cry from the anonymous, premanufactured mobile classroom units trailered to overcrowded campuses today.
My colleagues at Freeman-Kennett and peers in the industry have rekindled our interest in the one-room schoolhouse model through our educational commissions, as well as other opportunities that call for grouping small simple buildings around a central courtyard used as a gathering space for discovery. We develop these concepts in partnership with fellow architect Tom Lowe of Charlotte, known for his expressive work for similar “learning cottages.” His use of traditional detail is familiar, comfortable, user-friendly — rather reminiscent of Voorhees’ projects.
Louis Voorhees’ work offers important lessons to consider and echo Robert Fulghum’s tenets. Above all else, these lessons are simple and yet profound: Remember who you are designing for; attend to the details; add a little whimsy, charm and a sense of familiarity; and, above all else, make sure occupants can reach the cabinets, turn on the faucet and flush.
Peter Freeman is a practicing architect in High Point and a 1966 graduate of the Town and Country Kindergarten.