Fletcher Dresslar, professor of health education at the George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, was instrumental in rural Tennessee’s school-building reform movement. Dresslar was born in Indiana on September 21, 1858. He earned his doctorate from Clark University in Indiana in 1894 and then studied at the University of Berlin and the University of Munich. Throughout his life, Dresslar worked in many aspects of education, as a teacher, principal, and professor, and as a specialist for the U.S. Bureau of Education. Dresslar developed a specialty in school architecture and hygiene, publishing the influential American Schoolhouses in 1911. A year later, Dresslar began teaching at George Peabody College for Teachers, working for the Bureau of Education. Health and architecture were two of the school’s top priorities, and Dresslar was one of the first professors hired. His next book was School Hygiene (1913).
Dresslar specialized in schoolhouse design, reform of rural schools, and school hygiene. He called for playgrounds, better-lit schools, double floors, running water, and improved sanitary conditions. His federally supported pamphlet “Rural Schoolhouses and Grounds” (1914) called for new, aesthetically pleasing, sanitary, and well-planned schoolhouses. To replace one-room rural schools, Dresslar insisted that new schools should include at least a workroom, a classroom, and a library.
Dresslar’s ideas challenged prevailing ideas about rural schoolhouses and their construction. He believed that schools should be built not from ready-made plans but in consultation with the community and school authorities. Architects should design these buildings to suit the needs of the community. Aesthetically, Dresslar believed that schoolhouses should be beautiful externally as well as functional. Rural schools should be comparable, in functionality and aesthetics, to urban schools built at the same time.
Dresslar completed several surveys of rural schoolhouses in the early twentieth century, including a 1919 survey of Rosenwald schools that criticized the building plans utilized under the direction of the Tuskegee program. Because of the survey, the Julius Rosenwald Fund opened a southern district office in Nashville in 1920 and one of Dresslar’s students, Samuel L. Smith, served as director of the program. Dresslar and Smith soon established new criteria for Rosenwald schools. These plans utilized Dresslar’s standards for lighting, ventilation, sanitation, and aesthetic beauty. The creation of the Nashville office greatly enlarged the scope of the Rosenwald Fund, and it built four thousand new schools between 1920 and 1930, thus ensuring that the principles set forth by Fletcher Dresslar in his survey endured as an important part of school buildings for another generation.
In 1927, the George Peabody College for Teachers established the first program in school building services. Dresslar designed the curriculum, drawing from the courses he taught in school hygiene and buildings. The students that Dresslar trained came to dominate the school building divisions of state governments in the South and continued to build schools influenced by Dresslar’s principles. Dresslar remained at Peabody until his death on January 19, 1930.
Mary S. Hoffschwelle, Rebuilding the Rural Southern Community: Reformers, Schools, and Homes in Tennessee, 1900-1930 (1998)