CityLab: After School Closings, a Renovation Challenge

Built in 1964, Overton Elementary is among Chicago’s best examples of Modernist institutional architecture. Photo credit: Pappageorge Haymes
The Stewart School, designed by Dwight Perkins and built in 1907, is now loft-style apartments. Photo credit: Pappageorge Haymes

“Dwight Perkins isn’t among the most familiar names associated with Chicago architecture. But unlike Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe, his work left a particularly vivid impression on the childhoods of generations of Chicagoans from all corners of the city, because he designed their schools.

“A proto-Prairie School architect who traded letters with fellow social refomer Jane Addams and saw schools as multi-functional community hubs, Perkins had a hand in 40 school buildings and additions for the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) from 1905 to 1910.

“‘If it wasn’t for some other guys — Sullivan and Wright for example — he probably would have been more of a household name,’ says Kenneth DeMuth, partner at the architecture firm Pappageorge Haymes, which has renovated several Chicago schools.

“Architects and developers rave about Chicago’s world-class collection of public schools, a body of facilities that range from the ornamented Romanesque edifices of the late 19th century to the spare Modernist campuses designed by Perkins’ son Lawrence, who built the megafirm Perkins & Will on the back of early school commissions.

“‘I think we have some of the best schools in the country in terms of infrastructure,’ says Edward Torrez of Bauer Latoza Studio. His firm has worked on more than 300 CPS schools, as either as managing architects coordinating a $1.6 billion capital renovation campaign in the late 1990s or as architects of record for additions and renovations.

“But many Chicago schools sit empty today, a consequence of the largest mass closure of schools in modern US history. Faced with a $1 billion deficit and declining enrollment, CPS shuttered 46 school buildings in 2013, affecting 50 schools and 12,000 students — largely located on the city’s South and West Sides, the poorest and Blackest sections of the city. Then-mayor Rahm Emanuel pledged that student performance improvements would flow from this wave of consolidation, and that all the closed schools would be sold by the end of 2014.

“Neither promise was kept, and as the 10th anniversary of the mass closure arrives, 13 of those buildings are still vacant and owned by CPS; 10 others have been sold but are not in use. CPS declined an interview, but in a statement, CPS spokesperson Mary Fergus said that the district is considering several options for the remaining buildings, including reclaiming them or transferring the properties to the city; the district is also ordering appraisals to prepare for a possible new public bid process. ‘Chicago Public Schools remains committed to selling or working with City agencies to repurpose the remaining available sites associated with the 2013 school closures,” she said.

“Twenty of those 46 Chicago school buildings closed a decade ago have found second lives, in a wide variety of roles. They’ve become luxury and affordable housing, temporary migrant shelters, community centers offering supportive services, and public housing agency offices. Some are still being used for educational purposes, including a private Waldorf school.

“Their disparate fates illustrate the trade-offs in flipping once-public infrastructure to the private sector. But they also show how new uses can ameliorate the issues that caused the schools to close in the first place, as when neighborhood organizations act as developers to secure a future for these buildings, on their own terms.

“For the architects charged with bringing new life to dead schools, either path to adaptive reuse presents its own distinct design challenges.” (Mortice, Bloomberg CityLab, 10/9/23)

Read the full story at Bloomberg CityLab

After School Closings, a Renovation Challenge; Ten years ago, Chicago enacted the largest mass closure of schools in US history. Here’s how architects gave some buildings a second life, Zach Mortice, Bloomberg CityLab, 10/9/23 

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