Kids don’t just go to class at Coral Gables Elementary School — they experience a piece of art and history.
Now, after 90 years as a city landmark, the school kicks off a celebration of its past at 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Coral Gables Museum, which is hosting an exhibit of the historic Mediterranean-style building through February.
“This is really a story about beauty,” said historian Arva Moore Parks. “This school is unique. And it’s like a work of art.”
Coral Gables founder George Merrick wanted it that way when he began building the city in the early 1920s on family farmland.
But there was a problem: The school board. It wanted to build a basic, inexpensive box-like structure, Parks said.
It was the antithesis of the Merrick’s vision for his “Spanish City” that he marketed as a place “where your castles in Spain are made real!”
So Merrick initially paid for the building out of his own pocket; the school board eventually paid him back.
Merrick hired one of early Miami’s most influential architects, Richard Kiehnel, to design the castle-like school along with its archways and loggias adorned with Corinthian columns and bas reliefs of renaissance dolphins and sea horses. Built with high-ceilinged classrooms, it was designed to capture the prevailing southeasterly breeze in an era before air conditioning.
The school and its architecture served a dual purpose. Merrick used it as a selling point and he believed art for art’s sake was good for education.
“The Coral Gables School building, now almost completed, marks another advance in the well-rounded development of Coral Gables,” Merrick once wrote, hailing the “far better influence through beautiful things which inspire high ideals in the minds of children.”
Decades later, the school’s high test scores and “A” grade lend measures of credence to Merrick’s beliefs. And the success of the school remains a Coral Gables real-estate selling point.
Almost as constant as the school itself is its leadership. Unlike many schools, where principals turn over every few years, it has had just six principals in its 90 years.
“I love that this school has a sense of community,” said Graciela “Cheli” Cerra, the current principal who took the job in 2003.
“What I love about the building is the architecture, the archways and the cool breezes,” she said. “It has a very calming and serene feel to it.”