Carl Sandburg Elementary School

By Justin Kockritz
September 2008

Bust of Carl Sandburg.

Bust of Carl Sandburg.

Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) are renowned for the quality of education they provide, and credit is rightfully due to teachers, administrators and staff for their tireless dedication.  However, one important aspect of the success of MCPS that is often overlooked is the school buildings themselves, many of which enjoy their own unique history and proudly display distinctive, often progressive designs of notable architects.  Examples of Modernist schools are found across Rockville; one of the best maintained is the Carl Sandburg Elementary School (currently the Carl Sandburg Learning Center), located at 451 Meadow Hall Drive in the Twinbrook neighborhood.

In 1955, Joseph Geeraert and his Twin-Brook Development Corporation acquired the land, once a part of Samuel Clark Veirs’ Meadow Hall Estate, to create Twinbrook Forest, a sister subdivision to Twinbrook, south of Veirs Mill Road.  Like its predecessor, Twinbrook Forest adeptly filled the postwar housing needs of returning veterans and young couples purchasing their first home.  Recognizing the need for additional schools to serve the rapidly growing population, MCPS bought 7.8 acres from Geeraert for a new school to relieve overcrowding at the existing Meadow Hall Elementary School.  On the advice of the MCPS School Name Committee, the new school was dedicated in honor of Carl Sandburg, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and historian.

Architect Arthur L. Anderson (1894–1980) was selected to design the new school.  A baker turned self-taught architect, Anderson was nearing the end of his three-decade career which included: Wheaton Plaza Shopping Center (then the 6th largest in the country), the Suburban Trust Company Building in Rockville (the “Pink Bank” at the corner of North Washington Street and Beall Avenue, now occupied by Bank of America), several sleek, mid-century automobile showrooms, and numerous residences and commercial developments across the area.  From 1958 to 1965, Anderson built six elementary schools in Rockville, but today Sandburg stands as one of his best preserved and least altered designs.

Carl Sandburg Learning Center by Max A. van Balgooy.

Carl Sandburg Learning Center by Max A. van Balgooy.

Like much of Anderson’s work, Sandburg features striking horizontal lines, suggestive of an austere, mechanical interpretation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style.  The school’s most distinctive features—the highly structured, rhythmic curtain walls of horizontal glass panes, the entrance recessed beneath the dramatic, zigzagged underside of a cantilevered canopy, and the structure’s precisely arranged, asymmetrical massing—are emblematic of the Modern aesthetic of the early 1960s.  The interior spaces are maintained meticulously; the prominent multi-purpose room retains its original wood stage, and the conference room features photographs and relics donated to the school by the Sandburg family.

After opening in the fall of 1962, the enrollment of Sandburg soared and the school quickly became an anchor for the community, hosting countless Little League games and PTA bake sales.  For years Sandburg welcomed neighboring residents to its end-of-year picnics and the community returned the school’s generosity, collecting their S&H Green Stamps and redeeming them for a riding lawnmower to donate to the school’s custodian.

The building’s tenure as an elementary school was short-lived however, owing to Twinbrook’s demographic shifts.  Those who moved there in the 1950s and 60s matured, children graduated, and the expansion and renovation of Meadow Hall Elementary alleviated the need for a second neighborhood primary school.  Sandburg Elementary closed in 1977, reopening the following year as the Carl Sandburg Learning Center—dedicated to providing a highly structured learning environment, designed to meet the educational needs of children from across Montgomery County.  Today, faculty and staff cherish the school and embrace its unique architecture and history.