History Lesson: The Evolution of Chicago Public School Design
CAC's Jen Masengarb recently collaborated with WBEZ's Curious City to explore the evolution of Chicago's public school designs.
by Jen Masengarb, Director of Interpretation and Research
This podcast examines schools from one particular era: the 1920s. More public elementary schools were built during this time in Chicago than in any other era. Their design reflected new ideas about child development and health. Read WBEZ's story on four features of 1920s Chicago Public Schools that reflect changes in education.
While many of Chicago’s schools are from this era, the city has a rich architectural history of school design that spans many decades. Led by changes in the curriculum, CPS architects have developed some of the country's most innovative designs for education. At the same time, the changing popularity of various architectural styles for schools have often mimicked what was fashionable in residential design at the time. For an in-depth look at Chicago’s historic schools, visit our favorite collection of essays and historic photos. The on-going project, led by historian Julia Bachrach and a team of researchers, documents the history of these significant buildings.
Learn how to determine the construction date of your local school by identifying key architectural features.
(1860s - 1870s)
Some of Chicago's earliest public schools took their architectural cues from large Italian villas and farmhouses. The style became fashionable throughout the Midwest and was also commonly used in brick row houses and large single family wooden homes in the city during the 1870s. Many of Chicago's Italianate buildings were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and by the time new buildings were constructed, the popularity of the style had faded. Only a few Italianate style schools remain in the city, often in older neighborhoods.
Key features: Two or three stories; tall and boxy; symmetrical form; low-pitched roof with wide overhangs and ornamental brackets; tall narrow windows with decorative trim on top
(1880s - 1900s)
Queen Anne style homes also influenced the style of Chicago's late 19th century schools. These three- to four-story brick schools often resembled the popular style of architecture for very large private homes. With spiky turrets, prominent rooflines and dormers, and multi-sided bay windows, they stood out against smaller homes in the neighborhoods. Inspired by the Picturesque Movement in England, the eclectic style remained popular in Chicago up to the end of the 19th century.
Key features: High-pitched gable roof; tall and boxy; asymmetrical form; bay windows with pointed roofs (turrets); elaborate ornamentation
(1900s - 1910s)
The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago revived a national interest in neoclassical design, inspired by ancient Greek and Roman architecture. Banks, train stations, libraries, museums, and schools across the country quickly adopted the style. With their monumental scale, this style fit well with Chicago Public School's rapidly growing student population and larger school buildings. CPS architect Arthur Hussander is most well-known for employing this style, having designed more than 60 new school plans during the early part of the 20th century. He chose a Classical Revival style for many of the buildings, including massive landmarks like Lindblom Technical School in Englewood and Senn High School in Edgewater.
Key features: Flat or very low-pitched roof; wide symmetrical form; evenly-spaced rows of windows; full-height columns at the building's entrance; ornamentation inspired by ancient Greece and Rome
(1900s - 1910s)
Frank Lloyd Wright's radical ideas for the design of homes in the early 20th century also influenced the design of schools in Chicago. Prairie School architecture, with its emphasis on connecting the building to the horizontal landscape, was translated to several CPS schools, though at a much larger scale than Wright's single-family homes. During his brief years as CPS architect, Dwight Perkins designed some of the most modern and innovative public schools in the country. With warm colors, clean lines on the facade and no extra ornament, Chicago schools like Schurz High School in Irving Park and Bowen High School in South Chicago stand as Perkins' finest work.
Key features: Hipped or gable roof with wide overhanging eaves; symmetrical form (in schools); bands of smooth brick; no applied ornamentation
(1920s - 1930s)
This style of school building, often called Collegiate Tudor Gothic, was very popular in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. The design brought to mind the prestigious medieval English universities like Cambridge or Oxford that first used this style of architecture. The largest building boom in CPS history took place in the 1920s and dozens of elementary schools across Chicago - often built in new bungalow belt neighborhoods, four to seven miles outside the city center - used this style.
Key features: Flat roof (in schools); two stories - long and narrow symmetrical form; dark brick with white stone accents; ornamentation inspired by the Middle Ages such as towers with crenellated roofs and finials
(1920s - 1930s)
Art Deco was named for the 1925 Paris exposition which introduced the world to streamlined designs and buildings less influenced by historical motifs. Streamlined edges, smooth brick surfaces, with spiky roofline edges were common. Architects used simple geometric shapes as minimal decoration around the entrances and windows. The design of these buildings signaled toward the future with a simpler, more utilitarian form.
Key features: Flat roof; long and narrow symmetrical form; smooth wall surfaces of brick; ornamentation often includes zigzags, chevrons, and other geometric forms
Modern / International Style
(1950s - 1970s)
Many schools constructed after World War II were influenced by the ideas that modernist architects brought to the US from Europe. The overall shape of the building became simpler, less monumental and often lower and more spread out than the schools of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. No additional ornament was added to the smooth flat wall surfaces, flat roofs and around long strips of windows. These schools that resembled corporate headquarters and government buildings, marked a shift away from designing schools that resembled prominent civic buildings like museums.
Key features: Flat roof; symmetrical form; either steel, concrete, or brick; large windows grouped together and built flush with the face of the wall; no applied ornamentation
(1980s - present)
Schools designed and constructed in Chicago today take on a very different shape, form and color from their predecessors. Some buildings use more traditional materials like brick, but in contemporary ways, to blend in with the residential neighborhood. Others use dramatic angles and innovative facades of metal, glass, or concrete. Color is often used to highlight the buildings' form. Architects are once again paying closer attention to the environment and striving to get more natural light and fresh air into the building. And as centers of the community, many schools are now designed with the more 'public' spaces in the building (library, cafeteria, auditorium, gym) located closer to the front entrance.
Key features: Flat roof; asymmetrical form; often concrete or steel; irregular groupings of windows; no applied ornament