Could proposed school closings put an important class of architecture at risk?

March 25, 2013

Located on the southern tip of historic Garfield Park, Leif Ericson School is a nice slice of postwar modernism: a low-slung, blond brick building with two wings that meet in a curved, visually powerful, yet welcoming entry plaza.
 
But the 51-year-old building might be on borrowed time. Ericson, 3600 W. Fifth Avenue, is one of  54 Chicago Public Schools that could be shut down under the largest round of planned school closures in U.S. history, announced last week.
 
How the plan will impact students and families is the stuff of vigorous public discussion for now and for months to come. But the proposed move places another question on the horizon: What will happen to the closed school buildings, many of which--like Ericson--are remarkable pieces of architecture, often done by the city's best architects, and are worthy of preservation and reuse?
 
(But first, a note: Originally, this post included Alexander von Humboldt School, 2620 W. Hirsch, among the buildings slated for closure. That info was incorrect and came from a WBEZ story and graphic that has since been corrected. Von Humboldt, a beautiful Victorian-era school building, will not be closed, and indeed will be a receiving students from nearby schools that will close.)
 
I spent last weekend photographing schools slated for closure. Like most of the Chicago Public Schools real estate portfolio, the targeted buildings are largely well-designed and neatly-kept structures built between the early and  mid-20th century.
 
Here is another view of Ericson, designed by Shaw Metz & Dolio, a firm whose work included the marble-clad Kemper Building skyscraper, 1 E.Wacker, from 1962 and the bleak (and now demolished) Robert Taylor Homes public housing development from the same era. The building is kept neat as a pin. And that louvered sunshade is just perfect, matching a similar one in the rear of the school:
In addition to Ericson, there were more than a few gems found on my journey. Look at Trumbull School, 5200 N. Ashland, a Prairie School beauty from 1909 designed by Dwight Perkins:
During a five-year stint as chief architect for the Chicago Board of Education, Perkins designed 40 schools including his masterpiece on Milwaukee Avenue, Carl Schurz High School. He founded the architecture firm Perkins Fellows & Hamilton and later joined the marquee of Perkins Chatten & Hammond. His son, Lawrence Perkins, founded architectural giant Perkins & Will.
 
As for Trumbull School, another detail:
Among the South Side schools planned for closure is the Anthony Overton School, at 49th and Prairie, built in 1963 and designed by Perkins & Will. Done up in colorful glazed brick, the building is a clone of Beethoven School at 47th and State, with each structure composed of classroom towers and connected to offices and other spaces via glass corridors:
 
If the schools must be closed, treating the buildings like potential community resources, rather than objects to be demolished or otherwise cast-off should be the first order of business. We're a green city? Reusing as many of these building as possible is much greener than rolling the bulldozers on them.
 
One hopeful sign: a Chicago Public Schools spokesperson said the district's CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett "wants to find creative ways to re-purpose these buildings so they can continue serving their communities." The former Price School, 43rd and Drexel, is a location for the City Year program and a parent center, she said.

The spokesperson said the district "may not be able to repurpose each and every one" and might be able to sell some schools. She said school officials have begun "engaging the community over the last several weeks and will continue to in order identify ways to use these buildings so that they can continue to serve their communities."

But there is no need for the school system to shoulder this task alone. Once the closing list is finalized after public hearings, a task force of architectural preservation experts, community folk, school officials, open space advocates, urban planners and real estate types should be formed to publicly figure out which school buildings to preserve and for what new purpose.

The group could seek ways to preserve the best buildings, but their work could also go much deeper. School buildings have kitchens, auditoriums, gyms--things that are sadly lacking in many of the neighborhoods that could suffer the brunt of the closings. And like good architecture, community amenities like those are hard to replace, once gone.

That's lesson this city continues to learn, albeit the hard way. Here's a chance to do something new.

 
 
 
 
 
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