James Ward School
2703-2729 South Shields Avenue
Historical profile by Elizabeth A. Patterson
Located in the Armour Square neighborhood of Chicago, James Ward School is the city’s oldest public school building still in active use. The original building was one of six elementary schools constructed in 1874-75 as part of the push to reconstruct and reinvigorate the Chicago Public School system after the Great Fire of 1871. Designed by the short-lived firm of Edelmann and Johnston – now best known for its early nurturing of renowned architect Louis Sullivan – Ward School was modeled after their much-admired King School of 1873. (Located on Harrison Street, near Western Avenue, King School is no longer extant.) (1)
Both Ward and King (and the five others like them) were designed in the popular Italianate style of the time, and included many innovations. Edelmann and Johnston trimmed the load-bearing brick walls of the three-story buildings with limestone stringcourses and windowsills and hoods. They topped the buildings with impressive pressed-metal cornices supported by decorative brackets. Inside, the firm used center-hall plans featuring four rooms per floor, thus insuring that each classroom had large windows on two walls, thereby maximizing natural light and ventilation. For similar reasons, they placed chimney and ventilation stacks on either side of the center halls. Brick replaced wood in partition walls. And toilets were located in the raised basements, rather than in outhouses in the schoolyard. (2)
Following its general practice of the time, the Board of Education named the Shields Avenue school for one of its former members, James Ward (1814–1881). Ward, however, was more than a mere politician. Born near Antrim, Ireland, he left home for the United States at the age of twenty. He stopped first in Auburn, New York, but in 1841 came west to Chicago. Here, he invested in real estate and, with his brother, became a builder, erecting “some of the most substantial buildings between the Chicago River and Halsted.” (3) In 1857, he became a member of the Board of Education. He served until 1863, when the Board named him its “Building and Supply Agent,” a position he held until his death in 1881. As Building and Supply Agent, Ward was officially charged with overseeing construction of the city’s public schools. His duties included construction of Ward School and the others modeled on the King School plan. In its 1874 Annual Report, the Board heralded Ward “for the faithful and economical performance of …his duty,” calling the new buildings “perfect and complete in every detail, thoroughly substantial, [and] a credit to the city….” (4)
Nevertheless, within a few decades, the school population in the working-class Armour Square neighborhood—and across the City—had grown dramatically, and additional classroom space was much needed. By 1888, many schools throughout Chicago had been forced to implement two half-day sessions. Ward School parents instead requested the creation of three additional classrooms in the school basement. These were damp and moldy, with poor ventilation, but the immigrant parents preferred them to a loss of classroom time for their children. (5)
The end of the nineteenth century was not only a time of great growth, but also one of economic upheaval, and the Board of Education adopted the cost-saving policy of erecting additions, rather than new school buildings, wherever possible. (6) In 1897, the Board of Education began construction of a nine-room Ward School addition. Board Architect Normand S. Patton designed the addition in the then-popular Romanesque style, but was careful to echo the massing and details of the original Italianate section. Unlike the mustard-colored brick original, Patton’s addition was built of red brick.
By the 1920s, Italians, Yugoslavians, African-Americans, and Chinese had joined the original Irish, German, and Swedish laborers in the Armour Square neighborhood, and Ward School was again short of classroom space. This time, Board of Education Architect John C. Christensen designed an addition with Classical details, such as Ionic pilasters flanking the entrance. As did Patton before him, Christensen used a limestone stringcourse to tie the separate sections of Ward School together. He also employed a limestone cornice to unify the two additions.
As Ward School continued to age, keeping it open was not always the most obvious choice. When the roof of the 1894 Audubon School (3500 N. Hoyne Ave.) collapsed in 1973, there was much concern about the condition of the City’s oldest schools. (7) In 1981, however, when the Board of Education considered closing Ward School, its students and teachers argued passionately to keep it open. They noted that the then107-year-old elementary school had been rehabilitated to include all the modern conveniences (gymnasium, lunchroom, assembly hall), and that it was a multi-ethnic, multi-racial place where real learning occurred. (8) Fortunately, the students and staff prevailed, and Ward School remains not only a place of learning, but also a monument to the history of the Chicago Public Schools.
James Ward Elementary School was designated a Chicago Landmark in 2005.
- Twenty-first Annual Report of the Board of Education, for the Year Ending June 25, 1875, pp. 101-105.
- The 1874 annual report of the Board of Education included a drawing and plans for the King School. Twentieth Annual Report of the Board of Education, for the Year Ending June 26, 1874, frontispiece, pp. 132-135.
- Ibid., pp. 16, 17.
- Landmark Designation Report: James Ward Public School, 2703-29 South Shields Avenue (Chicago: Commission on Chicago Landmarks, 2004), p. 14.
- Twentieth Annual Report of the Board of Education, for the Year Ending June 26, 1874, pp. 16.17.
“Overcrowded Schools,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 6, 1888, p. 8.
- Forty-third Annual Report of the Board of Education, for the Year Ending June 25, 1897, pp. 121-122.
- Edith Herman, “Audubon Collapse Raises Fears for Other Older Schools,” Chicago Tribune, April 22, 1973, p. 34.
- Anne Keegan, “Why Our School: Kids Fight to Prevent Closing?” Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1981, p. 1.