Historic Bronzeville high school begins trip toward possible landmark status

November 29, 2011

DuSable High School, an expansive late Art Deco edifice with an impressive alumni roster that ranges from jazz singer Dinah Washington to Soul Train impresario Don Cornelius, will be recommended for preliminary landmark status this week.

Staff from the city's Landmarks Division on Thursday will ask the Commission on Chicago Landmarks to grant the designation to the 77-year-old predominantly African American high school at 49th and Wabash, according to the commission's agenda. The preliminary designation would protect the 390,000 sq ft building from demolition or unsympathetic alterations while the staff investigated full landmark status. The school isn't endangered, however. DuSable was renovated in 1996 and has undergone an exterior renovation and a roof replacement this year. A group of DuSable alumni sought landmark status for the school, namely because of its history and its noteworthy alums.

Built in 1935 with an addition in 1962, the block long school was built to relieve overcrowding at the equally historic Phillips High School on Pershing near Indiana. Originally called New Phillips High School, the school was renamed in honor of Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable--a black man who was Chicago's first permanent settler in the 1780s--shortly after its opening.

Architecturally, its a solid, if conventional, brick building with traces of Art Deco around the doors and in the structure's massing. Lindblom Math and Science Academy, a restored Beaux Art beauty at 61st and Wolcott was landmarked last year and is a better piece of architecture than DuSable. But that's not the whole story here.

DuSable's real beauty is its history. Just as its mother school, Phillips High School churned out a list of graduates in the 1930s and 1940s that included singer Sam Cooke, Gwendolyn Brooks and scores of others, DuSable roster was just as impressive. The school turned out students such as Redd Foxx, jazz singer Johnny Hartman and future Chicago mayor, Harold Washington. DuSable's music education program was particularly noteworthy. The program's leader, Walter Dyett taught and nurtured an array of young musicians who would later compose a who's who of 20th century jazz, soul and blues, including Gene Ammons, Bo Diddley, sax man Eddie Harris, the aforementioned Dinah Washington and more.

The Commission on Chicago Landmarks will meet at 12:45pm Thursday in room 201-A at City Hall.