“In Avalon Park on the South Side, a massive structure sits, evoking memories of bright futures and immense pride. Nicknamed ‘the Palace,’ Chicago Vocational High School’s regal architecture and grand size seemed to fit the buzz about the place, former students say. Alums included Bears great Dick Butkus and comic Bernie Mac, and the school drew motivated students, many of them Black and Brown, from across Chicago.
“But that was then. Now, the building, and the school, are hurting. Enrollment has declined. The number of vocational programs at the school, now known as Chicago Vocational Career Academy, has been slashed. The school, which opened in 1940, once housed more than 4,800 students, alumni say. Now it’s about 730. For decades, the school boasted dozens of vocational programs, a nationally recognized marching band and top-notch sports teams. It was known as “the Pride of the South Side,” as alums are quick to remind you.
“Michael Mims, class of ’78, chairs the Chicago Vocational High School Restoration Project, which works to preserve the building. They also organized an online petition to obtain landmark status, which they hope will prevent the building’s demolition and prompt CPS to undertake extensive repairs — ideally, enough to attract more students and add more programs.
“‘The push to save the building is also tied to a belief in vocational education, which alumni say has the power to lift many Chicago youth from underserved communities. ‘I just want to see kids be excited like that again, saying, ‘I’m going to learn something new,” Mims said.
“The building, constructed in the late 1930s, was a project of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. It blends art deco and art moderne design, and features fluted exterior columns, curved ceilings and wood inlaid murals. It’s also one of the largest CPS buildings. The school was built for 6,000 students, Sun-Times editorial writer Lee Bey noted in his 2019 book, ‘Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side.’ It also has 800,000 square feet of interior space over a 27-acre site, the equivalent of 5.5 blocks, according to the Restoration Project.
“But today, the building is in disrepair, with water-damaged ceilings, a non-functional swimming pool and a shuttered ‘Anthony Wing,’ named for its location along Anthony Avenue, that housed many of the school’s vocational programs, alumni say. In 2015, $56 million in work was completed, including interior renovations and mechanical, electrical and plumbing upgrades. But lack of funds prevented a second round of work, which, among other things, would have included demolishing the ‘Anthony Wing,’ at an estimated cost of $7 million. Demolition of the wing hasn’t been included in any CPS capital plans since 2012.
“To alums, the funding crunch that inadvertently saved the Anthony Wing, for now, offers a glimmer of hope. The restoration group’s push for landmark status centers on saving the wing, as well as restoring the structure and its community to its prime. For Mims and other alums, the Anthony Wing was a key part in their robust vocational education. At one time, the school offered almost 30 vocational programs, including aviation, welding and tailoring. Today, the school has seven vocational programs.
“Mims says recognition from the Commission on Chicago Landmarks not only would help preserve the school’s storied architecture, but also be the first step in turning the school around. ‘Once we get the landmark designation on the building, and can begin to look forward to having the property physically restored, that will create the space to reinstitute those vocational programs.’
“Lisa DiChiera, the director of advocacy at Landmarks Illinois, a historic preservation advocacy organization, said there’s ‘no question’ the school meets the criteria for a Chicago landmark. However, actually getting that status is more complicated. ‘It really does come down to a political coalition that needs to make a push for this building to be designated as a Chicago landmark.’ While a landmark designation often saves buildings from demolition and adds another layer of scrutiny to any alterations, it doesn’t force property owners to maintain or repair their buildings, she said. ‘Landmarking is only one part of the entire endeavor to make this place better.'” (Beeferman, Chicago Sun-Times, 11/11/21)
Could preserving school’s regal architecture help CVS regain status as ‘the pride of the South Side’? Some grads of Chicago Vocational High School say their alma mater is in a state of disrepair. As enrollment declines, they hope designating the school as an official Chicago landmark can save the building — and the community, Jason Beeferman, Chicago Sun-Times, 11/11/21
Chicago Vocational High School, An Overlooked Art Deco And Art Moderne Hybrid; Lee Bey’s Overlooked South Side Architecture: Chicago Vocational High School at 2100 East 87th Street, Block Club Chicago Staff, 10/10/19