The Power of Inspiration: “Harold and the Purple Crayon” at Marshall Elementary

Author: John Noble


Architects and designers are constantly on the lookout for inspiration to inform and shape their projects. Some of us find it in nature, art, or in everyday objects; others might discover a creative muse by traveling to other countries or exploring different cultures. The great thing about inspiration is that it can come from anywhere and can strike when you least expect it. That’s why it’s so important for architects and designers to keep their eyes and minds open to fresh takes, new ideas—and sometimes, old stories.

Such was the case in our work for Marshall Elementary of the Talawanda School District in Oxford, Ohio. SHP was selected to replace this conventional school that had originally opened in 1968. Very much a product of its time, Marshall Elementary was a standard concrete block building, overcrowded and outdated after half a century of use. The district determined that, while the gym was still viable, the rest of the school needed to be replaced with new classrooms and updated technology that would meet the needs of today’s learners.

In the early planning stages of this project, we explored the existing school. In preparation for thinking about how it could be better used in the future, I found myself perusing the shelves of Marshall Elementary’s library. I am an avid reader and collector of great children’s literature and, as I carefully paged through an early edition of the 1955 classic Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson, just like that, inspiration struck.

In Harold and the Purple Crayon, the reader is introduced to Harold—a quiet 4-year-old boy who, with his purple crayon, discovers the power to manifest the world around him through the simple act of drawing. Having trouble falling asleep, he decides to go for a walk in the moonlight. As he walks, he draws the moon and a path, and spends a night creating his own world and going on his own adventures.

The story is, of course, about dreaming and the power of imagination—but flipping through the book’s pages, I had an epiphany that our team was doing the same thing as Harold: using lines and imagination to take possession of (and responsibility) for the creation of a new learning environment. Fundamentally, the act of architectural creation is one of translating dreams into bricks and mortar and that spark of inspiration led us to enact the story of Harold and the Purple Crayon in the process of designing the new Marshall Elementary.

“I had an epiphany that our team was doing the same thing as Harold: using lines and imagination to take possession of (and responsibility) for the creation of a new learning environment.”
– John Noble, Design Leader

In a very real way, the design of this building provided us a chance to afford the students at Marshall Elementary a measure of agency in the creation of their own (academic) world, so we proposed that the design incorporate a line that wrapped around the outside of the school; a line which could, over time, incorporate individual children’s acts of self-expression into the very fabric of the building itself.

To bring this idea to life, SHP detailed a bold line of masonry that snakes around the exterior of the school. Initially, we thought about letting students decorate bricks that could be set into the building itself but the logistics of coordinating the creation of the bricks within the construction timeline proved unworkable. In the end, we decided on a dark blue recessed line of glazed masonry—just deep enough that it could accommodate the insertion over time of glazed tiles designed by students in the school. Year by year, the line could be filled by these tilesso eventually it will be made up of the individual expressions of each and every student, which when viewed collectively, will form a continuous and coherent narrative tying the entire facility together.

Aside from being a striking addition to the brand-new building, this blue line proposes the creation of a tradition that can be integrated into the culture of the school and continue over time. This vibrant feature can give every child who passes through its halls the chance to contribute a tangible piece of the school’s structure and a permanent mark of their time there. It also captures an extraordinary message—that with enough inspiration and imagination, each of us has the power to shape and create our reality.