Robert Flischel likes to tell about the days he tagged along with his father on weekend plumbing repair jobs in some of the older Cincinnati Public Schools buildings. While his dad worked on the pipes, the young Flischel explored the buildings, developing an appreciation–and eventually a love–for the ornate, sometimes whimsical collection of art, architecture, sculpture and tile that adorn the district’s oldest buildings. To Flischel, they were like jewelry draped on the neck of a grand dame.
There were painted murals depicting scenes from fairy tales like Jack and the Beanstalk and Hansel and Gretel. There were Wheatley and Rookwood tile water fountains with detailed scenes of Danish farm life or legends such as the Pied Piper. There were the grotesques defending against ignorance on the gargantuan roof of Hughes High School, and the friezes and reliefs documenting historic places and events like Columbus’ arrival in the New World and Cincinnati’s Fort Washington.
Flischel especially liked the brass sculpture of the nursery rhyme characters Wynken, Blynken and Nod that once graced the entrance of the former Oakley Elementary School. But his favorite is that of a young girl, perched on the roof of Oyler Elementary School, her legs tucked neatly under a green dress, reading a red-covered book she holds open in her two hands.
A picture of the polychrome terra cotta statue, showing all the blemishes of age and neglect, graces the cover of Flischel’s new book, An Expression of the Community: Cincinnati Public Schools’ Legacy of Art and Architecture.
The book is published by The Art League, an organization concerned with documenting and preserving the unique art and architecture of the schools.
But the idea began with Flischel, a 1972 graduate and professional photographer. In 1988, while roaming through Cincinnati’s Price Hill neighborhood on a Sunday afternoon, he rediscovered the statue of the Oyler girl, and the idea of a major book project came rushing into his mind along with the memories of his days in the schools plugging leaks with his dad.
“The schools were part of my early life and the project was a retracing of my father’s footsteps. I learned the schools were like palaces,” Flischel says. “The momentum in the book is to say, ‘Here it is, so you don’t forget, let’s respond as a community and make sure this legacy is still there to instruct, to educate and to inspire.’ ”
The publication of the 224-page coffee-table book last fall is particularly timely, just preceding the release of the school district’s long-awaited 10-year facilities master plan. The plan details about $1 billion in construction projects to modernize or rebuild every occupied school. One major issue is whether and how to preserve the oldest historic buildings–and their art–some of which the state recommended for demolition because of the high cost of renovation.
Beth Sullebarger of the Cincinnati Preservation Association says historic school buildings should be preserved because they’re landmarks that convey civic virtues and aesthetic values to students. She helped the district appeal the state of Ohio’s planned demolition of 11 such buildings, and all appeals were granted.
“As it stands now, no historic buildings will be demolished, which is a miracle,” she says. “Seventeen historic buildings will be renovated, and those that will be closed will be available for redevelopment. I consider this a major victory for preservation.”
What Flischel found in the 45 oldest schools he photographed was the legacy of art created in the early 1900s, when Cincinnati, like other growing Midwestern cities, committed itself to reinventing its school buildings. A culture of beautification in the style of the arts and crafts movement was adopted, and from 1905 to the 1930s, Cincinnati’s public schools were built or renovated with much attention paid to architecture and ornamentation.
At the helm of this school revival movement was John Murphy Withrow, a local physician who became the city’s health official and school superintendent. Appalled by the filthy conditions in the city’s hospitals and schools, he pushed for renovations and successfully got a school bond issue passed in 1905 to pay for the new construction.
Schoolchildren also helped. The girls of Hughes High School formed The Art League in 1903 and collected pennies from students to buy the works of local artists like Paul Ashbrook and William P. McDonald.
During its heyday, the league contributed many items to the schools. The league disbanded in 1974, however, when school construction was minimal and attention to architectural and ornamental detail was considered too costly.
In 1995, Flischel helped revive The Art League, which now works to preserve and enhance the legacy of art in the schools. It raised about $116,000 for the publication of the book, which sells for $50. About 1,600 copies have been sold, with all proceeds benefiting The Art League. The group hired Donald Prues, an English major who earned a bachelor’s degree in 1990 and master’s in 1993, to be managing editor of the project.
Flischel says what’s compelling about the artwork is the education it imparts, the stories it tells and its beauty.
“The texture, the fact this art is touchable and the colors are bold, and the symbolism–it’s unforgettable,” he says. The title of the book, An Expression of the Community, is taken directly from a tile fountain at the Schiel Primary School for the Arts–one he undoubtedly came across with his dad so many years ago.
Robert Flischel discovered his love of art when his mother encouraged him and his siblings to explore their artistic abilities. That exposure led to a career in photography for Flischel, whose photos have appeared in publications such as Life, Time, Audubon and National Geographic Traveler. Flischel, 53, grew up in Cincinnati, attended Catholic elementary and high schools, and graduated from the University in 1972 with a degree in sociology and a minor in art. He bought his first camera in 1971 and took his first photography course from University professor Theodore Thepe, S.J.
Flischel tried social work, but his interest in photography led him to the Pazovski photography school in Cincinnati’s Mt. Adams neighborhood in 1973. In 1977, he opened his first studio and has been shooting ever since. He also worked as a staff photographer and editor for Ohio Magazine. He has been photographing the city’s school buildings for 13 years.