Born in Denmark, John C. Christensen immigrated to America with his family as a child. He began his career as a clerk of the works in the Architect’s Department for the Board of Education in 1906, during Dwight Perkins’s tenure. According to the 1906 Proceedings of the Board Education, in this position Christensen was one of several men “on the ground continuously to inspect the work” of new schools and additions. The following year, the Chicago Daily News Almanac reported Christensen’s appointment as Assistant Deputy in the City of Chicago’s Building Department under Commissioner Joseph Downey. A prominent member of the Board of Education, Downey headed the buildings and grounds committee. (Around this same time, Downey spearheaded a campaign to force Perkins to resign from his position as the Board’s chief architect.) Christensen continued working as Downey’s assistant in the building department until in 1910, when he was appointed as the Board of Education’s assistant architect under Arthur Hussander.
Shortly after Hussander resigned in 1921, the Board promoted Christensen to serve as the chief architect. In 1924, the Board embarked upon an ambitious construction program. Restructuring the entire architecture and construction department, the Board hired Edgar Martin as Supervisory Architect. In this new position Martin directed three bureaus: architecture, engineering, and repairs. Christensen headed the bureau of architecture, answering to Martin.
In January of 1926, Martin resigned from the Board of Education, and Christensen resumed his position as the department head. This was a difficult time because dozens of recently constructed schools such as Hale, Nightingale, Peck, and Hitch were found to have construction flaws. Christensen was not blamed. In fact, his salary was increased in November of 1926. Christensen produced many fine designs for new schools such as Lucy Flower Vocational High School, Roger Sullivan High School, and Fort Dearborn School. He also created additions that related well to earlier structures at schools including James Ward, William Ray, Carl Schurz and Theodore Herzl.
In 1928, Paul Gerhardt, Sr., was appointed as architect to the board. Christensen continued working for the Board under Gerhardt’s supervision. Upon Gerhardt’s resignation in 1931, Christensen was reappointed as head architect. The early years of the Depression nearly bankrupted the Chicago Public Schools. Contractors had to completely halt work on construction projects that had been well underway for new schools and additions including Lane, Steinmetz, DuSable, Senn, Rembrant, and Wells schools.
Through President Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Board of Education received some federal funds, but the recovery for the school building program occurred slowly. An initial grant in 1934 allowed for the completion of schools and additions that had been partially constructed. During the early years of the Depression, schools were forced to use temporary trailer-like structures known as portables to relieve overcrowding. Finally, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Christensen had the opportunity to design dozens of new schools. Some were executed in a handsome Art Deco style such as the Chicago Vocational School, and others in stream-lined versions of historical styles. These include Alcott, Goudy, Dever, Mt. Greenwood, Newberry, and Jamieson Schools.
Christensen continued as architect to the Board of Education through the 1950s. At the end of his career, he headed an ambitious building campaign to address the growing Baby Boom population. Although this 200 million dollar program resulted in numerous additions and some new schools, it failed to provide any new buildings or improvements to schools in Chicago’s minority neighborhoods particularly on the South Side. The program took place under the leadership of Benjamin Willis, who served as superintendent from 1953 to 1966, and became nationally renowned for refusing to desegregate the Chicago Public Schools.
In addition to his work with the Chicago Board of Education, Christensen also maintained a private practice. His work includes the 1917 Columbus Park field house, two houses in Chicago’s Villa District and a home in River Forest. According to the Chicago Tribune, in the fall of 1925, Christensen succeeded Edgar D. Martin in the honorary position of Supervising Architect for the State of Illinois. (It was customary for the State Architect to simultaneously maintain a private firm or practice architecture elsewhere.)