S. A. Wilson Elementary School is a midcentury school that opened in the Colorado Springs suburb of Security-Widefield in 1959. Originally built and soon expanded to help Security-Widefield accommodate a massive population increase during the decades after World War II, the school reflects one of the many challenges of dealing with Colorado’s rapid, federal government-fueled postwar development. Today the complex is known as the Wilson Center and is home to a variety of Widefield School District programs and offices.
Security-Widefield’s Suburban Boom
Before World War II, what is now Security-Widefield was an agricultural area of ranches and dairy farms southeast of Colorado Springs. At the time, Colorado Springs itself was a relatively sleepy resort town of only 37,000 people, but it woke up quickly in 1942, when the army decided to locate a new base south of the city. About 11,000 workers soon arrived to build Camp Carson, which grew to a population of 43,000 troops at its height—more people than lived in all of Colorado Springs before the war.
Camp Carson shrank soon after World War II ended and was considered for closure, but the start of the Cold War and especially the Korean War in the early 1950s led to renewed activity at the base. In 1954 the base became a permanent installation called Fort Carson, and by the late 1950s it counted 1,700 civilian employees and 23,000 soldiers. Similar transformations happened at other Colorado Springs–area military installations such as Peterson and Ent Air Force Bases, causing the population of El Paso County to nearly double during the 1950s, from about 75,000 in 1950 to 144,000 in 1960.
All these new El Paso County residents needed places to live. In 1953 investment banker and real estate developer Edwin Hayes started planning a new subdivision called Security Village on an 800-acre parcel of ranchland just east of Fort Carson. After setting aside land for schools, parks, shopping centers, and other amenities, Hayes opened the new subdivision’s first houses in early 1955. After American Builders took over the development, the pace of construction increased to about seven new houses per week, and in 1957 Arizona-based developer Jules Watson started work on an adjacent subdivision called Widefield Homes.
Thousands of new residents pouring into the Security-Widefield developments in the late 1950s needed schools for their children. The local Widefield School District dated back to 1874. But as late as the mid-1950s, it had only a two-room school serving students up to sixth grade, with older students having to travel to Fountain for high school. With the district’s population exploding—from 125 students in 1954 to more than 3,500 in 1961—voters quickly approved bonds for school construction. Aided by federal funding for municipalities affected by an influx of government jobs, the Widefield School District opened a new elementary school by the end of 1955 and three more schools in the next three years. To save money and time, the district employed a single Colorado Springs–based firm, Francis & Guy, to design all of its new schools during these years. Yet even with four new schools in four years, the district still faced an acute shortage of classroom space. Schools operated in split sessions, with separate sets of students attending at different times of day.
Building Wilson Elementary
In 1959 the federal government appropriated $180,000 for the Widefield School District to build a new elementary school and a new high school. The elementary school was to be located along Main Street at the north end of Security-Widefield and named for school board member S. A. Wilson. Planned as a single-story rectangular building, it featured distinctive midcentury design elements such as tan brick facing, exterior classroom doors, and a flat roof with deep overhanging eaves over large bands of windows. With only six classrooms, the school’s design also reflected an educational philosophy favoring small, child-focused neighborhood schools.
Wilson Elementary School opened on December 5, 1959, with an all-female teaching staff. The district’s tremendous growth led to immediate overcrowding. The school board decided to expand the school as soon as funding was available and hired Francis & Guy to plan a four-classroom addition. But by the end of 1960, such a small expansion seemed silly given the district’s mushrooming population. To cope with the growth, in February 1961 voters approved a bond for new school construction, including a much larger expansion of Wilson Elementary.
Wilson’s 1961 expansion transformed the school from a single rectangular building to a three-building complex arranged in a U shape around a central courtyard. An enlarged version of the existing school building and a matching new classroom building became the long east and west ends of the U, connected on the north end by a shorter building with a multipurpose room, music room, science room, and kitchen. All three buildings were connected by covered concrete walkways.
The expanded Wilson Elementary complex was completed in time for the start of the next school year in September 1961. But even the major expansion of Wilson did little to mitigate the district’s overcrowding problems. The school’s music room had to be converted to a classroom almost immediately, and by 1962 the district already needed a new elementary school and a new junior high school to house all its students.
Wilson Elementary School and its surroundings have seen several minor changes since the 1960s, including paved parking lots, landscaping, and the rearrangement of some classroom walls. Most significant, the three-building complex no longer houses an elementary school; today it is known as the S. A. Wilson Center, home to the Widefield School District’s online and alternative education programs as well as other district services.
Wilson Elementary School is the best preserved of Widefield’s midcentury schools. It serves as a representative example of how Colorado municipalities used modern design to address the educational problems posed by a rapidly expanding postwar population fueled by the growth of federal government jobs. In 2017 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.