Butler School: Celebrating A Century 1921-2021
Butler Construction History
April 1918- The Lawrence Portables, moved from the corner of South Grand and West Grand (MacArthur Bld.) to Butler’s current location has its name officially changed to The Butler School in honor of William Butler, friend of Lincoln, former Sangamon County Clerk and IL State Treasurer.
March 1920- Parents push to have Butler moved back to the corner of South Grand and MacArthur (then called West Grand). The Board of Education does not even call a vote.
March 1921- Increasing growth in the area leads to a proposition to build a new Butler School in its current location. In order to fund the construction, a bond issue must be passed.
April 1921- Construction on Butler School begins.
October 1921- Cornerstone laid in foundation.
August 1922- Construction completed.
November 1929- After the addition of portable buildings to address overcrowding, the Board of Education suggests an addition be built to Butler School.
April 1932- North Addition of Butler School begins.
September 1932- North Addition completed.
March 1935- The Board of Education discusses the need for more space at Butler School.
Spring 1936- South Addition construction begins.
December 1936- South Addition completed.
May/June 2020- A review for a 3rd addition begins. Plans are approved to build an additional section on the North end of the building. Construction to begin in 2021/2022 coinciding with the 100 year anniversary of the building.
Who Was Butler School Named For?
William Butler was an early settler in the area, the Sangamon County Clerk from 1836-1841 and the State Treasurer from 1859-1862. Most notable was his friendship and mentorship of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was a longstanding guest at Butler’s house early in his career. William Butler did many things to help Lincoln with his political career. Written correspondence between the two men is archived in the Lincoln Presidential Library.
Additional resources about William Butler and his family are included in the Butler School: Celebrating A Century collection of which this narrative is a part. More resources on William Butler that can be found within the Sangamon Valley Collection at Lincoln Library.
1914-1917: The Lawrence Portable(s)
Lawrence School was built in 1905. Interestingly enough, it was designed by architects Helmle & Helmle, the same family team that would design Butler School sixteen years later. In 1914, Springfield Public Schools found themselves running out of room at Lawrence, so a satellite school was constructed blocks away from its big sister to ease the overcrowding.
It’s a routine that would repeat itself countless times over the years and one that is still used today; When you run out of room, put in a mobile unit. The Lawrence Portable as it was called, was placed at the corner of South Grand and West Grand (renamed MacArthur Boulevard years later). It was run by Assistant Principal Elizabeth Foley and teacher Kathryn Bergner. The school district paid $2,000.00 for its construction and put it into use that September of 1914.
In 1915, the Springfield School District purchased 2.3 acres of land on the corner of Laurel and West Grand (MacArthur) with the intent to build a new school replacing The Lawrence Portable. The sale was cancelled when the question of purchase was voted down by Springfield voters. An amendment passed in 1917 allowed the district to purchase the land, but not build on it. This is the probable reason The Lawrence Portable was moved south to this location rather than having a new building built at that time. From this point until the time when actual construction began, The Lawrence Portable turned into The Lawrence Portables. By some accounts, up to seven or eight portable classrooms were moved to this site as more people came to live in the southern and western portions of the city.
1918: Butler School Established
Since the portable was no longer an extension of Lawrence school, many felt a name change was in order. A group from the school, led by Springfield lawyer William J. Butler came to the Board of Education requesting the name be changed to Butler School. Not wanting to make a decision without a group consensus, the board directed the group to conduct a vote among all the patrons of The Lawrence Portables in early March 1918.
According to an article in The Illinois State Journal dated March 28, 1918, the patron group from The Lawrence Portables delivered their vote count to the board in order for them to make a decision. The vote count was as follows:
Votes to rename The Lawrence Portables
- Butler School- 20
- Noble Wiggins School- 14
- Wiggins School- 10
- Washington Park School-4
- Leland School, Washington School, Oak Knolls School, Fairholme School, Dial Court School and Laurel School- 1 ea.
Included in the article was a tongue-in-cheek mention of a “mysterious stranger” who was known to have possibly swayed the vote in Butler’s favor. Students were promised a swim party if they brought a “Butler” vote from their parents to the ballot box.
The assumption was that the mysterious stranger was William J. Butler himself.
If the patrons voting for “Noble Wiggins” or “Wiggins” School felt strongly about their decisions, they would have had a strong case to declare victory or at least another vote. Given that the two variations of “Wiggins” garnered four more votes than the votes for “Butler” and the fact that they were possibly attained through the manipulation of children, those patrons possibly had reason to complain. It’s no stretch to say that we came very close to becoming Wiggins Wombats instead of Butler Bobcats.
Still, the vote was only a guideline for the Board of Education to follow when they made a decision the first week in April 1918. After another address by William J. Butler, the board voted 5-2 to formally change the name of The Lawrence Portables to Butler School in honor of his grandfather, William Butler. Butler School was established.
Mary P. Peek was acting principal from 1918-1920. In 1920, Margaret Davis took over as a teaching principal and ran the portable version of Butler with teachers Gladys Rubado, Velma Spooner, Kathryn Bergner and Olive Saunders. Davis, Spooner and Saunders continued to teach at Butler when the new building was constructed.
1918-1921: Overcrowding and Construction
Though there was talk as early as 1915 of building a new, modern school for the southwestern portion of Springfield, it wasn’t until overcrowding became such a concern that it happened. An article from The Illinois State Journal mentions additional portable buildings being added to Butler as early as August 1919.
Many people were not happy with the location change of The Lawrence Portable. It made the distance to get to school farther away for some students. During this time period, groups of patrons of the now multi-building school met with the Board of Education to try and influence location changes. According to the article in The Illinois State Journal dated April 3, 1918, a group of patrons followed the name change vote with a request for school accommodations farther north. It was a request that would be repeated many times before the new Butler School building was constructed. The group, led by Lewis N. Wiggins, requested a new building at the former site of The Lawrence Portable, back north to the corner of South Grand and West Grand. Their request was based on the need for a more centralized location in the city. After a few board meeting discussions, the Board put a halt to their requests and refused to even call a vote on the matter.
Almost a year to the day later, the board decided the time was right and voted to begin the process of building two new schools for the city. Poor conditions led to the decision as Feitshans School had recently suffered fire damage and Butler’s portables were becoming a short-term solution that had gone on too long.
In order to begin and pay for the construction, the Board had to have the help from the voters of Springfield once again. The first was to change the terms of the district’s purchase of the land Butler sat on. The last voted on amendment by Springfield citizens allowed the school district to buy the land, but not build on it. The question of allowing the district to build on the land had to be on the ballot and pass. William J. Butler, continued his involvement with Butler School by helping to get the signatures necessary to pose the question on the next ballot. The other part was strictly about money. Both Butler and Feitshans needed the necessary bonds issued in order to pay for their construction.
In March 1921, The Daily Illinois State Journal published the bond issues in the coming election with an interesting way to grab the attention of Springfield parents and voters. With his involvement as an advocate of Butler Improvement, William J. Butler may have used his keen eye for swaying the public by the use of guilt over Butler’s current condition. Regardless of the cause, all necessary measures passed during the election and the Springfield School District could begin the process of planning and constructing a new Butler School.
1922-1923: The New Butler School
The design of Butler and Feitshans schools were once again in the hands of Helmle & Helmle. Having designed so many of our schools and prominent buildings in Springfield, other architectural firms must have had a disadvantage when designs were submitted. Given that they were designed and built during the same time period, it’s interesting to note just how similar the Butler and Feitshans buildings are. Pictures taken in one building are commonly mistaken for being taken in the other. Many of the same materials (brick, woodwork, flooring, terrazzo) were used in both buildings. Many think of the two buildings as “Sister Schools”.
The Board announced that initial construction of the buildings would begin in April. That may have well been preliminary construction such as land grading, sewage and water since the official blueprints for Butler are dated May/June 1921. Unless contractors were the type to build without directions, it’s more likely that construction of the foundation and walls began during the Summer of 1921.
According to an article dated October 21, 1921 in The Illinois State Journal, the cornerstone for Butler School was laid with fanfare and ceremony. The article also mentions that a “box containing data of future historical value” was placed within the wall before the cornerstone was put in place. At that time, Butler was the twentieth school with such an enclosed time capsule included in its construction.
By August 1922, the new Butler school was completed. Students walked its halls for the first time at the start of the 1922-1923 school year. A notation left in Butler’s 75th Anniversary binder lists the teachers who were first to teach in its state-of-the-art classrooms:
Margaret Davis- Head Teacher, Reading, 6A, 6B
Kathryn Bergner (original teacher of The Lawrence Portable)- Arithmetic, 5A, 5B
Hilda Hegener- 4A, 4B
Gertrude Simpson- 3A, 3B
Olive Saunders- 2A, 2B
Velma Spooner- 1A, 1B
Emma Lasch- Physical Training (p.m.)
Elma Peek- Junior Primary (p.m.)
Mabel Walraven- Music (p.m.)
School Year: September 4, 1922 - June 15, 1923
(School Closed for Fair Week September 15-25, 1922)
1923-1936: Overcrowding, Portable, Construction, Repeat
Throughout the years, Butler School has followed a pattern. As more students came to live within its boundaries, classrooms filled up. At times there may have been two classrooms for each grade level, but this may have expanded to three, maybe even four classrooms per grade level depending on the school year and population shifts in Springfield. The easiest way to deal with overcrowding in a school is to bring portable structures on to the campus. Even though Butler had a new, modern school building, they eventually had to bring in portables to help ease the overflow. The first mention of this is in an article from The Illinois State Journal in June 1925.
Eventually, additions to the building were built. The first was the North Addition in 1932. It was designed by local architect Harry J. Reiger. With this addition four classrooms were added to the building. At the time, there was a great need for an additional 4th grade classroom. It’s notable that the two rooms in the basement were used for storage with the addition. As the need for space arose, these two storerooms on the north end became classrooms.
In less than four years, Butler School would repeat the process. Portables would be brought back on the campus until another addition was built in 1936. This one was also designed by Reiger and included a gymnasium and stage area.
The benefit of this addition was Butler’s ability to finally include 7th and 8th grade student classrooms. Up until this time, students were sent to Lawrence School for their final two years of elementary schooling. It also enabled Springfield to use Butler’s gymnasium as a community center. Hobby shows seemed to be a frequent, popular occurrence. Butler School at the end of 1936 was the new, modern school building that the southwest part of Springfield had always wanted.
1921-2021: Interior Changes
The Second Floor
The Butler School that was built in 1921 is far different from the Butler School one-hundred years later. Most people are unaware of the two additions in 1932 and 1936, or where the original building ends and the additions begin.
That is where the blueprints by Helmle & Helmle and Harry Reiger come in handy. By looking at how Butler School has changed over the years, questions arise, answers are sought out and in the end, history is documented.
Though it is not known when these elements were removed, the original 1921 building had a few surprising details that were lost over time. The centerpiece of the school are its three arched windows directly over the main entrance. For many years Room 204, the music room stood behind those arched windows. At some point in time, it became a fourth grade classroom (quite a desirable one since it has a stage!). The interesting detail about Room 204 is that it was originally two separate rooms. The portion to the north was the teachers’ lounge and restroom. The southern portion was the school library and a fantastic library it was! The original library sported overhead beams on the ceiling and a fireplace. As stated before, it isn’t known why or when these rooms were combined into one, but it’s likely that the changes happened during one of the additions.
Outside of Room 204 is where another interesting detail of the original building was. Students and teachers walking through the upstairs hallway were able to see the day’s weather by merely looking up. A skylight was part of the original Helmle & Helmle plans. It’s assumed that like most skylights, it eventually began to become a bother with leaks and was taken out during subsequent construction.
Across the hall from Room 204 were two classrooms. Interestingly enough, those two classrooms were merged together to create the Butler Library that most alumni remember. Once again, it’s assumed that this took place around the same time that the teachers’ lounge and library were merged into a music room. Unfortunately, as Butler faced overcrowding in the 2000s, the large room was turned back into two classrooms (Rooms 203A and 203B) and the library moved to one of the portables (mobile units) before ending up being housed on the stage.
The last aspect of the original building worth noting is the basement. Currently this portion of the basement contains the boiler room, cafeteria, kitchen and speech room. That was not the case originally. The boiler room has stayed close to its original design with the exception of a coal room. The differences with the original lie within the other sections. Originally, the basement was composed of two rooms separated by a wall. The northern portion was designated as the “Boys’ Playroom”. The southern portion was the “Girls’ Playroom”. The separation by an interior wall meant that the only way to get to each portion was via the corresponding stairwell from the playground doors. At some point over the years a doorway was cut through the interior wall to connect the two halves of the basement. The southern half became the cafeteria (The first mention of this was 1954. An area was created where children who brought cold lunch could eat. Others went home, or to a local eating establishment each day.). The northern half eventually became the kitchen and speech room, but it’s not known exactly when hot lunches began being served at Butler School. By all accounts, a hot lunch system wasn’t put into place until the late 1960s or early 1970s.
When the additions were built, the basement space added was designated as storage except in the case of the South Addition. Room 10 was noted as being an “additional fourth grade classroom” during the 1936 construction. Eventually Rooms 1 and 2 in the North Addition basement became Kindergarten classrooms, and the storeroom on the south end was made into three rooms for student resource groups, storage and office space.
Grade Levels and Principals
As Butler School was going through various interior changes, its student base changed over the years as well.
The Springfield School District has had a long history of moving students around to deal with overcrowding. This has included changing the grade levels that schools accommodate, Butler School included. The following is how grade levels have changed for Butler School over the last one-hundred years:
1921 to 1924 - 1st thru 6th Grade
1925 to 1936 - K thru 6th Grade (Kindergarten added in 1925)
1936 to 1959 - K thru 8th Grade (7th and 8th Grade added in 1936)
1959 to 1967 - K thru 6th Grade (7th and 8th to FMS in 1959)
1967 to 1975 - K thru 5th Grade (6th to middle schools)
1975 to 1977 - K thru 6th Grade (Middle Schools became 7/8/9, then 8/9 centers)
1977 to 2000 - K thru 4th Grade (5/6th grade centers, return of 6th grade to middle schools)
2000 to 2021 - K thru 5th Grade
Butler School Principals
Butler History in Print
March 20, 2021 7 photos
Class Photos 1921-1963
March 19, 2021 18 photos
The History of the Butler Bobcat
March 23, 2021 4 photos
Butler School Trophy Case
March 19, 2021 22 photos