Layton School of Art and Design Records, 1888-1980


From its inception the Layton School of Art coupled John Dewey's educational theories with the design needs of America's industries. Layton's educational methodology stressed development of the natural aesthetic creativity and feeling for design inherent in each person, followed by training which enabled the application of these natural abilities to practical and modern industrial uses. The school's mission was to produce skilled, creative artists who could actually earn a living in the world of business, industry, or education.

Viewed by some as one of the most progressive art schools in the country, Layton made design the core of its curriculum and pioneered several movements now considered standard practice in art education. It was the first professional art school to require a year of foundation courses prior to specialization. One of these foundation courses was appreciation of literature, thereby exposing students to different means of artistic expression. It abolished an old taboo by conducting its life drawing (nude) classes with male and female students together. Courses were arranged to allow students exposure to the methods and viewpoints of different instructors.

Charlotte R. Partridge founded the Layton School of Art in 1920. She graduated from the nontraditional Emma M. Church School of Art in Chicago and had taught at the progressive Frances Parker School and Chicago Kindergarten College. Partridge was head of the Fine Arts Department at Milwaukee-Downer College when her former teacher and mentor, Emma M. Church, asked her to take over the Church School of Art . Unwilling to move to Chicago, Partridge decided to start her own school in Milwaukee and purchased Church's equipment with a $900 loan from her brother-in-law.

Trustees of the Layton Art Gallery offered the gallery's ground floor to the fledgling school. The gray pillared building stood behind a wrought iron fence on the corner of Jefferson and Mason streets. The trustees saw the school as a lasting memorial to Frederick Layton, the gallery's founder and a pioneer Milwaukee meat packer. Layton provided the vision and financing for the gallery. Architect G. A. Audsley designed the building, which opened in 1888, and it was said to resemble the Petit Trianon at Versailles. Layton sought out a British artisan to fashion the iron fence and traveled the European continent appraising, selecting, and purchasing the finest art available for his new gallery.

With facilities for the school assured, ten citizens donated 250 dollars each to remodel the Gallery's basement. Miriam Frink, Partridge's friend and a Milwaukee-Downer English teacher, joined her as co-director, assuming responsibility for business and financial affairs. The Layton School of Art was incorporated as a non-profit institution of higher learning in August of 1920, governed by a board of trustees. The doors opened in the fall of 1920 with 26 students enrolled for day classes and another 60 for evening school.

The first faculty member hired was Gerrit Sinclair, followed by Helen Hoppin. Dudley Crafts Watson, director of the Milwaukee Art Institute, donated his time to teach art history; Emma Church gave a series of lectures on the psychology of art; architect Harry Bogner taught architectural drawing and design; Miriam Frink taught literary appreciation and psychology; and Partridge taught composition. The school's aim was to prepare its students in two years to be effective workers in industrial art, commercial art, interior decoration, costume design, illustration and “normal” art.

Layton faculty members were carefully selected by Partridge, who looked for practicing artists with both outstanding reputations in their fields and teaching philosophies agreeable to her nontraditional approach. Over the years, Layton faculty included: Boris Lovett-Lorski, Stella Harlos, Gerhard Bakker, Knute Heldner, Girolamo Piccoli, William Owen, Walter Quirt, Richard H. Jansen, John David Brcin, Ruth Grotenrath, Emily Groom, Forrest Flower, George A. Dietrich, Rudolph A. Jegart, Schomer Lichtner, Ruth Muhlmeier, Frederick Muhs, George Niedecken, Joanna Poehlman, Karl Priebe, Kempert Quabius, John Waldheim, Marianne Willisch, Santos Zingale, and Hugh Townley.

Originally a two-year program, the school began offering a three-year diploma in 1925. Accredited teacher training was added to the academic program, which included interior design, illustration, advertising, fine arts, and education.

Special programs were also offered, including an innovative occupational therapy program, an architecture program, and a popular series of children's art classes that averaged about 200 students a week. The children's programs concentrated on development of imagination and observation. Children's Saturday classes began in 1920 and were free until 1945, when a fee was imposed.

The architecture program became Wisconsin's first unofficial school of architecture. It operated with only one full-time instructor, with Milwaukee architects donating their time and expertise in what eventually became a formalized apprenticeship system. Training included classroom lectures, drawing table practice, and practical field experience on building sites. Partridge complemented the school's academic program by bringing a variety of exhibits to the Layton Art Gallery, thereby exposing the students to the latest developments in architecture and other art fields.

The other academic programs also emphasized practical experience. Layton students competed in design and graphics competitions and they won commissions to produce posters, letterhead, and Christmas cards. There were many opportunities to produce practical industrial designs. Partridge herself developed a demand for Layton graduates in the businesses and industries in and around Milwaukee. From the beginning, Partridge devoted careful attention to advertising, focusing on student recruitment with news of school and student accomplishments and activities.

The school soon outgrew its quarters and additional space was rented. The school needed its own building, however, and in the spring of 1929 a group of interested women began a fundraising campaign. The onset of the Depression put an untimely end to the campaign, but Dr. Ernest Copeland, one of the original trustees, bequeathed one-third of his estate and this helped carry the school through the Depression years.

Around 1933, Mrs. Malcolm Whyte formed the Layton Art League to provide financial assistance for the school and work towards the ultimate goal of funding a new building. A later fundraising effort was thwarted by U.S. involvement in World War II. The need for a building became imperative after World War II, when a flood of students subsidized under the GI bill caused enrollment peaks. Admission waiting lists became the rule and the Board of Trustees approved new building construction. Nonetheless, by 1950 more than 1,110 students attended both day and evening sessions, still utilizing facilities at the Layton Art Gallery.

Then Helena Camp Lane donated the Camp family home site on North Prospect Avenue, which provided a suitable building site. Completed in 1951, the new five-story Layton School of Art building was designed by faculty members Edgar Bartolucci and John Waldheim. Employing cantilever construction and walls of glass block, it stood on a wooded bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, close to the heart of downtown Milwaukee. This building was hailed as the most modern, picturesquely situated, and functionally beautiful art school in the country.

The Layton Art Gallery did not fare as well. Losing its only paying tenant resulted in financial difficulties and in 1955 it was sold under court order. The art collection, hereafter called the Layton Art Collection, became a part of the Milwaukee Art Museum. A parking lot replaced the old gallery building which was torn down in 1957.

Another major change occurred in 1954. In a highly controversial move, the Board of Trustees voted to “retire” Director Charlotte Partridge and Co-Director Miriam Frink. Carried out over the objections of Partridge and Frink, and those of many faculty, students, and alumni, the retirement was effective immediately. Edmund Lewandowski had already been chosen to replace them.

A Layton graduate and former faculty member, Edmund Lewandowski was a controversial choice. Some felt he was chiefly interested in promoting himself. Lewandowski came to Layton from Florida State University in Tallahassee where he served as its Art Department Director. Lewandowski was an established artist whose work included magazine covers and illustrations. His mural art included the Miller Brewery office building, the entrance facade of the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center, and a mosaic mural at Marquette University.

A decade of success ensued under Lewandowski's directorship and the leadership of Board Chair Malcolm Whyte. Layton became known as one of the top five art schools in the country. Lewandowski's accomplishments included increasing the school's visibility through a comprehensive advertising and publicity campaign, a half-hour television series called The Layton Story which originated from WTMJ-TV studios, and a new industrial design degree program. He also brought a series of exhibits to the school intended to broaden student horizons and display contemporary art and design.

The school received a staggering blow in 1966 when the Milwaukee County Expressway Commission voted to buy and tear down the Layton school building in order to construct a freeway along the lakefront. The situation deteriorated further after the 1967 death of long-time Board chair Malcolm Whyte who had operated largely as a one-person board. Efforts to save the building failed and the school found a new home outside Milwaukee city limits on the former Riverview Middle School site in Glendale when downtown lots proved too expensive. Some have posited that it was the move away from Milwaukee's downtown area which started the school on its downward slide.

Furthermore, problems between Lewandowski and the faculty surfaced after the move. Many faculty members felt that Lewandowski had little respect for them-- his decisions were arbitrary, little input was requested of professional staff, and salaries were kept purposively low. Eventually Lewandowski allowed a faculty senate to form, but he appointed its officers. A turning point was reached in 1971 when the discontented Layton faculty voted (18 to 1) to form American Federation of Teachers Local 2149.

One of the last actions taken during Lewandowski's tenure was to change the name of the school to the Layton School of Art and Design. Amid growing concerns over his ability to lead due to personal problems, Lewandowski retired in 1972. Neil Lieberman took the school's helm that same year. Formerly art department chair at the Philadelphia College of Art, Lieberman set to work improving the school's facilities and faculty. He also focused on improving and updating existing academic programs and introducing new ones.

Initial rapport between the Layton president and faculty soured in 1973 when Lieberman, citing his intentions to “improve the quality of instruction,” announced that five (later increased to seven) full-time faculty members would not be rehired. Union representatives accused the school of union busting tactics and initiated legal action. In October a federal arbitrator ordered the teachers reinstated. Legal action continued, however, because the discharged faculty had not been reassigned to their old positions. For example, Paul Nelson, who had been department chair of Industrial Design, was put in a shop handing out tools.

In August of 1973, the Board's executive committee recommended that, due to financial problems, Layton not open for the upcoming school term. After the recommendation was overturned by the full board, merger talks commenced with Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, but they were not productive. Faculty-administration tensions continued and, on February 7, 1974, the Board announced that due to ever increasing costs, the school would close at the end of the academic year. Faculty, parents, and students were stunned and angry. The students planned their final commencement and did not include Neil Lieberman in their activities. Charlotte Partridge and Miriam Frink were invited to participate. Partridge was unable to attend due to poor health, but Frink read the graduates' names during the commencement ceremonies.

Many faculty and students claimed that financial considerations were not the real reason for the school's closure. Throughout the school's history, Board members had provided funding to the school in times of financial crisis. However, the Board did not raise any funds at the end. Ongoing administration-union friction has been put forward as a possible reason. The ongoing union lawsuit and eventuality of union and faculty participation in the school's decision making process may have contributed to the Board's unwillingness to contribute money. Most members were invited to the board service due to wealth or position in the community, not because of commitment to the school or to art education. They may not have fully appreciated the school's national standing and reputation.