|Vol. 17, No. 9||Oct. 30, 1997|
Children in Wilmington learned about architecture this summer in an enrichment program called Building Blocks, taught by art history graduate student Jeff Klee.
Marilyn Cooper is a house hugger, and the houses she especially loves are the old Wilmington houses with their "marvelous character and architectural details," she said.
A former middle school teacher and a grant writer, Cooper works with the Latin American Community Center, the Peoples Settlement and other organizations, and she said she is impressed by these buildings and the old neighborhoods .
She said she wanted the children who live in these city neighborhoods to learn about architecture and some of the history of their communities- who lived there and the people who built the houses-so that they could appreciate and take pride in their surroundings.
The wife of Stuart Cooper, engineering, she talked with Damie Stillman, art history, at a faculty function and sounded him out about her ideas. He was enthusiastic and assembled a volunteer committee to further the program as an art history outreach project. The committee consisted Stillman; Bernie Herman, art history; Robert Bethke, English; and David Ames, Center for Historic Architecture and Design.
"Architecture is a wonderful field for children to study. It involves several disciplines from art and history to engineering and math. Building Blocks is an innovative program, designed to introduce kids to the nature of buildings and how they were designed and constructed so that they become aware of their heritage and their surroundings," Stillman said.
A few months after the committee was formed last spring, the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) was organizing its summer enrichment program for city children at Christ Our King Church, and the Building Blocks project was invited to become a part of the program with a grant from CYO and the Wilmington Parks and Recreation Department.
Taught by graduate student Jeff Klee with help from Cooper, Building Blocks was held on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, last summer, for about 20 children ranging in age from 7 to the early teens.
Klee, who has a degree in architecture from Yale and is experienced in the field, started each session with a slide lecture on architecture, beginning with the pyramids and ending with skyscrapers. He also introduced the children to different architects from Thomas Jefferson to Paul Revere Williams, an African-American architect who designed homes for movie stars in the 1930s, and Julia Morgan, who helped design the Hearst extravaganza, San Simeon. There also were slide shows of Wilmington buildings and a visit to Christ Our King Church to observe its architectural features.
"We wanted to raise the children's awareness of their surroundings and, at the same time, slip in a lot of information about history, function and decoration and the engineering of buildings, including mechanical structures and such things as heating and cooling systems," Klee said.
The second part of each session was a hands-on project. First, the youngsters were asked to make detailed drawings of their own rooms including architectural features. During one of the later sessions, the children designed shoe box dioramas of the rooms they would like to have in the future.
The last project involved making buildings out of interlocking sticks and plastering and painting them. These then were placed on a grid representing a neighborhood and were on exhibition during parents' night.
Klee, whose research is focused on documenting churches in Sussex County, said teaching Building Blocks was an enjoyable challenge. "We were breaking new ground for the kids, but they were enthusiastic, and we had positive feedback from them," Klee said. "The children came to the sessions voluntarily because they wanted to, including one boy, who had been somewhat skeptical at first, but who sidled up to me at the end and said. 'Architecture is fun.'"
-Sue Swyers Moncure