Emil G. Hirsch School
7740 South Ingleside Avenue
Historical profile by Julia S. Bachrach
Emil G. Hirsch School sits on the western boundary of historic Grand Crossing Park. In the 1910s, nationally renowned landscape architects the Olmsted Brothers began planning a 20-acre park for the rapidly growing south side neighborhood. (1) After suggesting that the site should have a large field house with substantial outdoor facilities, the designers predicted that a school and other public buildings would eventually be built along the borders of the park.
The idea of placing a school on the edge of a park was on the minds of many designers and administrators of the time. In 1916, while Grand Crossing Park was under construction, the Board of Education began planning a technical high school on Ingleside Avenue along the park’s western border. The board considered naming the proposed school in honor of a famous Chicago surgeon, John B. Murphy. Plans for the technical school were stalled however, due to the nation’s involvement in WWI. Several years later, the board named another school under construction on the city’s Northwest Side for Murphy instead. The development of Hirsch School was delayed for several years.
During the late 1910s and early 1920s, the Board of Education was riddled by political corruption and after the “Municipal Voters League, the Women’s City Club, and other civic groups demanded a grand jury investigation and got it in May, 1922.” (2) In addition to jail sentences for board members and others who had benefited from illegal deals, a series of reform efforts resulted. In 1924, William E. Dever, who had recently been elected Mayor of Chicago, and civic leaders selected William A. McAndrew as the new Superintendent of the Schools. McAndrew, who had been a previous Chicago Public School teacher and principal as well as an assistant superintendent in New York City, was a strong proponent of establishing a junior high school system. A few such schools for seventh, eighth, and ninth grade students had already opened in Chicago, and McAndrew believed that by building more of them, the administration could relieve overcrowding and provide curriculum that would prepare students for high school and vocational schools.
The newly reformed Board of Education launched the largest building campaign yet undertaken by the school system. They hired architect Edgar D. Martin to supervise the program that had a total budget of $100 million for new schools and improvements between 1924 and 1927. To address the ambitious scope of the building program Martin was given a new position of Supervisory Architect to head three divisions: the Bureau of Architecture, the Bureau of Engineering, and the Bureau of Repairs.
In 1925, Edgar Martin developed plans for Hirsch School, which was intended as a model junior high school on the 5-acre site adjacent to Grand Crossing Park. Martin designed a handsome red brick school with cream-colored terra cotta details. The eclectic building combines elements of the Gothic and English Tudor revival styles. The structure is E-shaped in plan with the long side fronting onto the park. The Chicago Public School architects used the Hirsch design for other junior high schools that soon followed such as Sullivan Junior High School, now a high school located at 6631 North Bosworth Avenue.
The board named the school in honor of Emil Gustav Hirsch (1851–1923), a civic-minded rabbi who played an important role in the Reform Judaic movement. The rabbi at Chicago’s Sinai Temple for forty years, Hirsch also taught Semitic languages and literature at the University of Chicago. A civic leader, he served on the Chicago Public Library Board for nine years, including one as board president (3).
When Hirsch Junior High School opened in 1926, it was considered one of the city’s most modern educational facilities, with separate gymnasiums for boys and girls; an indoor swimming pool; a kitchen and cafeteria; a large library; and music and art studios. By the early 1930s, high school attendance levels surged due the job shortages of the Great Depression. As nearby secondary schools became increasingly overcrowded, thousands of area residents signed petitions asking for the conversion of Hirsch into a high school. The Hirsch PTA and community organizations objected to the conversion, stating that eliminating the junior high school would rob them of the “brightest spot in the Chicago school picture.” (4) Despite the controversy, the Board of Education closed all junior high schools in 1933.
In the late 1930s, Hirsch High School contended with severe overcrowding. The Board of Education leased the park’s gymnasiums and club rooms to help alleviate the problem. Between this time and the late 1940s, the park was often used as the venue for events in which Hirsch High School students were awarded medals at the end of R.O.T.C. training.
Named the Hirsch Metropolitan High School of Communications in 1982, the school is now known as the Emil G. Hirsch Metropolitan High School. Today, the handsome revival style building with adjacent green space remains a visual and historic icon in the Grand Crossing community.
- Julia S. Bachrach, “National Register Nomination Form for Grand Crossing Park, Chicago,” National Park Service Department of the Interior, 2006.
- Mary J. Merrick, The Chicago Schools, p. 142.
- Nancy White, “Hirsch School Named in Honor of Jewish Scholar, Rabbi,” Chicago Tribune, June 3, 1965, p. S1.
- “Parents carry School Fight to Sargent Group,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb. 26, 1933, p. SC2.