Once visionary, now obsolete: South Shore High heads toward demolition

January 3, 2011

South Shore High School, hailed by school officials as the "most advanced high school in the United States" when it opened in 1969, will be demolished this year, according to the city's Public Building Commission.

The PBC this month is seeking qualifications from companies with the capacity to demolish the block-long, 180,000 sq ft concrete structure at 7529 S. Constance Avenue on the western edge of Rosenblum Park. Submittals are due by January 14th. Spared from the wrecker's ball will be the original South Shore High School building, an Art Moderne-ish beauty at 76th and Constance that is still in use. A new South Shore High School located at 75th and Jeffrey on the east edge of Rosenblum Park is nearing completion.

The demolition will bring an end to an odd chapter in Chicago Public School design history. Built for a then-hefty $9 million, South Shore High was planned to be "a pace-setter for the city," according to a 1968 Tribune story. The architecturally Brutalist building (a style that was in vogue for educational and public intuitional buildings then) was designed with hexagonal classrooms, closed-circuit television that would beam-in instruction to the classrooms, motor-operated wall partitions that would allow instructors to change the size of their classroom spaces--even laboratory demonstration tables that would mechanically spin around to let students see science experiments from various angles. A darkroom, a skating rink and an amphitheater were also built.

The closed-circuit TV had another function: each CCTV monitor would have a clock for a test-pattern, thus eliminating the need for wall clocks.

And about the photo below: I wonder if the Class of 1978 will demand a refund when this sign is demolished.

When the school was planned in 1965, city officials and South Shore residents hoped a modern educational facility would curb the massive white-flight that was then occurring. It didn't. The neighborhood had a black majority by the time the school opened. The new facility was also plagued by construction delays and cost overruns (it cost almost twice its estimated pricetag) and the board of education lacked the money--or was it the will?--to adequately staff and equip the new South Shore. The edifice had been open less than a year when its PTA told the school board in a statement, "with all of its ultramodern, sophisticated material, [the school] is rapidly becoming a white elephant," the Tribune reported then.

The school was designed by the Chicago architecture firm Fridstein & Fitch. And if it bears a passing, slit-windowed resemblance to the recently-departed former Kennedy King College at 69th and Wentworth, it is with good reason. Architect Marvin Fitch worked on both buildings. The demolition cost at South Shore was not detailed in the PBC notice, but the agency asked for contractors who can demonstrate a history of handling demolition projects at the $2.5 million level and above.

Let's take a look around the South Shore campus. The first South Shore High was built in 1940 for $1.3 million and was to be called Rembrandt High School (that's a cool name, actually), but South Shore residents wanted the school named after their community:

The new South Shore taking shape at 75th and Jeffrey is built from a prototype by Chicago architect John Ronan. Here's a peek now; I'll revisit the project as it nears completion: