The following article was written by Jayne Honnold and first appeared in the newsletter of the Greenfield Historical Society.
“Delving into the 1914 letters between Edward Lee McClain and his architect William B. Ittner, one discovers enough drama to fill a PBS miniseries. From discussions of circumventing Ohio’s newly established fire codes to being asked to consider a run for Ohio’s governor, the collection of letters sheds incredible light on Greenfield’s favorite son – his business acumen, his tendency to micromanage, and his ability to achieve his goals.
To establish some insight into the level of involvement McClain had in all conceivable details related to the building of a high school, one need only look at the letters from a single month – January 1914 – in which McClain sent a total of 43 separate correspondences to Ittner in the form of day letters, letters, or telegrams. In return, Ittner penned just 15 letters and telegrams (all much less verbose) to McClain in that same month. It was a pivotal time for both men as the bids for the work on the project were to be “let” or awarded. Sealed bids for all the various parts of construction—plumbing, wiring, bricking, and so forth—had been submitted. Decisions as to which bids would be accepted required thoughtful consideration. In addition to low bids, McClain desired fine workmanship. McClain naturally hoped to maintain his budget while getting the most value for his money, and Ittner had equally high criteria. His goal was to build an aesthetically pleasing, modern building that would be the new standard for high schools across the country.
One day in particular, January 23, 1914, McClain wrote four different letters to Ittner. These letters cast a glimpse of the varied concerns McClain addressed regularly. McClain’s first letter of this date is to inform Ittner that the general contractor for the school project was to be sent eight sets of plans and a set of linen prints. A second letter involved questions concerning acoustics in the auditorium. A third letter regarded losing bidders who were asking for the figures of the winning bids. McClain wanted to know Ittner’s opinion of giving out such information. The final letter of this day dealt with information McClain had received from a company about promenade roof coverings, and asked Ittner if he had any opinions on the matter.
Details such as these and hundreds of others would be lost in today’s world. Builders and architects would use mobile phones, text messages and emails to conduct much of this business; the glimpse into the details of building McClain High School are known today because of the McClain correspondences.
While the matters of the day on January 23, 1914, were of a rather mundane nature, a few letters from January-February 1914 carry more significance. On January 2, 1914, Ittner wrote to McClain very clearly expressing his disgust at the manner in which Ohio’s new building codes were being enforced.
“If the line is drawn as tight on other school communities, as it has been in this case, those erecting schools in Ohio must have a “glorious” time of it, because I have never had such a “hair-splitting” experience with anyone. It would be interesting to know, also, if the schools which have been built in Ohio since the Code went into effect, conform as rigidly to it as the Greenfield High School,” Ittner wrote.
McClain acknowledged Ittner’s disgust on January 5, 1914. “As for the Department, I have never been satisfied that such exacting rules have been imposed in any other case, and I have it fully in mind to begin an investigation in due time, but not until we get sufficiently “out of the woods” to make sure of our own hides, for the purpose of determining what school building, if any, has been actually build under the present Code. I really don’t think there has been one . . . And the more I hear about it the more I am inclined to think that a certain firm of architects in Columbus must have made trouble for us. I heard it again today, from a certain person who came here to get a set of plans and specifications for the present building. I shall be sure to keep you finally advised of any progress I make in the way stated, and you may rest assured that if I can lodge anything against anyone I shall not refrain from doing it.”
McClain kept the topic of building code standards open in a follow-up letter dated January 12, 1914. “I have received a copy of a letter written by an architect in this State to the Governor of the State, severely censuring the Governor for not including . . . in his recent call for a special session of the Legislature a proposed revision of the Building Code . . . it is a question of policy. I have had it I my “craw” for some time past to let out something sooner or later, and is difficult to refrain. But we don’t want to antagonize anyone to the extent of making unnecessary trouble for this present plan. What I really have had in mind is to make a thorough investigation for the purpose of determining what school building really has been erected under the present Code. I don’t believe there has been one, in the sense that we have been held to it.”
Interestingly, and with surprisingly little fanfare, McClain concluded this letter by mentioning “incidentally” that he had been asked to run for governor. “I have mail today importuning me to allow my name to be considered as a candidate for Governor of this State on the Republican ticket. I have declined. If I were Governor I say now that the present Building Code would be changed, even if nothing else was accomplished.”
Ohio’s building code continued to be a sore subject as it was revisited in a letter from McClain to Ittner dated January 26, 1914. At last, the State Department of Education had approved Ittner’s plans, and “I don’t believe it necessary now to make any notes on the plans that will make them different in any respect” from what had been approved. McClain also requested “If you do send a different set I wish you would kindly advise.” McClain evidently realized that the State’s approval of these plans would need to be documented in the event that the previously mentioned “investigation” should proceed.
The intrigue continued into February 1914, after Ittner had read an architectural publication featuring a newly built Guilford Public School in Cincinnati. Ittner wrote to McClain on February 6, “As this is one of their recent buildings, it must have been built under the present Code. I am surprised to note, in examining the plans, that not one of the four stairways, with which the building is provided, is equipped with a metal and wire and glass screen. In fact, I was told by Mr. Peck, of the Peck, Anderson & Peck Company, in discussing the Ohio Building Law, that it is the practice of the Architects in Cincinnati to ignore this Code in many things, and that, in his opinion, none of the recent schools in Cincinnati have complied with it. If this is the case, I think that before we proceed too far in the matter we can thrash out this question further, and possibly save the cost of our metal and wire glass screens.”
McClain’s quick response to this information came the very next day: “I am not surprised to have your remarks regarding the Guilford school building in Cincinnati. As a matter of fact, I have felt satisfied from the beginning that the Department was holding us up. Further, my firm conviction is that there isn’t a building in the State erected strictly in accordance with the Code…I believe it will be all right for us to proceed with the idea of interpreting the Code more liberally.”
Ittner responded on February 9, 1914, “If it is found that the Cincinnati and other Ohio schools disregard this regulation, I do not see why we should be compelled to spend the money. Our school is well provided with stairways, and is a low building, absolutely safe without such fire screens, in my opinion. If I was building this school in any other State in the Union, I should never think of putting in any screens.”
The drama provided by Ohio’s building code is one of the more striking dilemmas McClain and Ittner faced throughout the building of the McClain High School. The public can read the extensive collection McClain-Ittner letters at the Historical Society.”