Historic Detroit

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Oakman Elementary School

Oakman, Dr. Charles H., School for Crippled Children (Dr. Charles H. Oakman, Elementary Orthopedic School) is a single story, double-loaded square ring with a central courtyard.

Prior to around 1920, students with special needs were often restricted to an education that was substandard in quality. Although the doctrine of compulsory education prevented these students from being excluded altogether, they were often educated at home or forced to relocate to remote facilities operated by the state. The city of Detroit, with its greater population and tax base, had the resources to be at the forefront of a Progressive Era movement to bring equal opportunities in education to formerly marginalized segments of the child population.

The first class in the Detroit school system dedicated to children with physical disabilities was organized in 1910. The first school devoted exclusively to such students was the Nellie Leland School for Crippled Children, established in 1919. Over the next decade the education of students with physical disabilities, formerly excluded from public education, became more commonplace.

In 1929 a second facility was opened, named after Dr. Charles H. Oakman, a dentist, oral surgeon, and member of the Detroit Board of Health and the Detroit House of Correction Board. During his career, Oakman worked to increase the availability of dental care to the city's children. He successfully lobbied for the creation of publicly funded dental clinics for children. Oakman also worked to improve the living conditions endured by inmates in the Wayne County prison system.

Oakman School was built on land recently annexed from Greenfield Township as the City of Detroit continued to grow in population and expand its boundaries to the northwest. Constructed at a cost of $586,412, it was designed to accommodate 450 students. It's site was chosen for its proximity to Grand River Avenue, enabling the school to more easily receive students commuting from other areas of the city. It was located on the city's northwest side to complement the location of Nellie Leland School on the near east side. The two schools continued to share some administrative functions and were supervised by a common principal until 1955, at which time the schools began to operate independently of each other.

Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, the architectural firm that designed Oakman School, also designed Nolan Intermediate (1926), MacKenzie High (1928), Denby High (1928), Pershing High (1929), and Osborn High (1957) Schools. Founded in 1853, it is one of the oldest architectural firms in the United States, as well as (presently known as the SmithGroup) one of the largest. Although the firm was not especially well-known for its school buildings, it was one of the most prolific firms in Detroit, perhaps second only to Albert Kahn & Associates. It is especially well-known for many monumental structures built from 1922 to 1930, when Wirt Rowland was its head designer.

These include the Guardian, Penobscot, and Buhl Buildings in downtown Detroit, among many others. The exterior stonework on Oakman School was designed by Corrado Parducci, to whom Rowland frequently turned for architectural sculpture. Parducci (1900-1981), an Italian immigrant, resided and worked in Detroit from 1924 until the end of his career.

Built with concrete block and reinforced concrete slab floors, Oakman School is a single-story building with a rectangular footprint, arranged around a central courtyard. The building's design allowed classrooms, a library, and an arts and crafts room to open inward, permitting students to easily access the courtyard space. The building also included offices, a conservatory, solarium, auditorium, and playroom.

The school also contained showers and medical and dental facilities to accommodate the needs of the student population. The equipment for dental care was donated by the family of Charles Oakman. The corridors were equipped with handrails for student use, and frequent mirrors, thought to encourage the development of healthy posture.

Last updated 02/05/2023