Helen C. Peirce School of International Studies
1423 W. Bryn Mawr Avenue
Historical profile by Julia S. Bachrach
In 1893, philanthropist and reformer Helen Caroline Peirce (1842- 1911) invited 32 teachers, principals, and other prominent women to her home in Chicago’s Lakeview community. Mrs. Peirce, who had previously served as an officer for the Chicago Woman’s Club, wanted to establish an organization solely devoted to helping underprivileged women and children who lived on the city’s North Side. The Lake View Women’s Club soon formed, with Peirce as its president. It was the first woman’s club on the city’s North Side. (1)
One of the club’s first accomplishments was to work with the Board of Education to open the city’s first free kindergarten. “The Lake View Women’s Club paid the rent, heat, and maintenance for the kindergarten and the Chicago Board of Education paid for a teacher and necessary supplies.” (2) At this time, there were many people living in squalor on the city’s North Side, and the Prescott School Free Kindergarten was located near the “Clay Holes,” a garbage dumping area in which “…children often starving, sought food and rags in those dump heaps.” (3) The club went on to many other accomplishments such as creating playgrounds, lobbying for compulsory education laws, and donating hundreds of books to school libraries. A special committee donated paintings, sculpture, and flowers to north side schools. Mrs. Peirce “personally donated a painting by a Chicago artist to Nettlehorst School in memory of the former principal Maria Clark,” a friend and club member. (4)
Soon after Helen C. Peirce’s death on December 15, 1911, several women approached Superintendent Ella Flagg Young with the idea of naming a school in honor of the revered club founder. Young, who had been appointed two years earlier as the nation’s first woman to head a large city school system, agreed with the suggestion. The Board of Education soon recommended that a proposed new school on Bryn Mawr Avenue be named for Helen C. Peirce.
Peirce School was designed by Arthur F. Hussander (1865 – 1945). Having begun as a draftsman for the Board of Education, Hussander became acting architect after Dwight H. Perkins was forced to resign in 1910. In 1913, the board officially appointed Hussander as head architect, a position in which he remained for the next seven years.
Around the time that Helen C. Peirce died, the board had initiated a major building program to assure “a seat for every pupil all the time,” to alleviate severe overcrowding. (5) Hussander developed a single set of architectural plans for ten new elementary schools including Peirce, Kohn, Waters and Armstrong. Constructed in cream-colored brick, Peirce School has simple Classical details such as engaged columns, pilasters, dentils and small lion’s heads.
By the time the Lake View Woman’s Club dedicated Peirce School in November of 1915, club members had arranged for more than 100 paintings and photographs to hang in its hallways, including a portrait of Helen C. Peirce. When Helen’s husband, Luther H. Peirce, died in October of 1915, he left a bequest of $35,000 to beautify the school’s interior as well as its grounds as a memorial to his wife. (6) The trust purchased numerous additional paintings, including reproductions of the old masters by students of the School of the Art Institute and new works by well-known artists.
Mr. Peirce had specifically requested the creation of an attractive playground for the school. In 1917, the special committee on decorations commissioned renowned landscape architect Jens Jensen to design the playground. A Danish immigrant now recognized as dean of the Prairie style in landscape architecture, Jens Jensen (1860–1951) believed that urban children needed opportunities to commune with nature. He suggested that parks and playgrounds “would gain much by more green and less gravel, by more freedom and less supervised play.” (7)
Jensen’s plan for Peirce School’s landscape did not provide playground apparatus. Instead it called for many of the naturalistic elements he had introduced as designer of small parks on Chicago’s West Side. These included dense areas of native plantings, small meadows or sun-openings, “bird pools,” curving paths made of flagstones, an area in which children could plant vegetable gardens, a naturalistic wading pool, and a circular stone bench known as a council ring. (8) The Board of Education acquired land west of the existing school in 1918, fully executing Jensen’s plan in 1923.
The year after completing the Prairie style playground, the committee began plans to redesign the school’s kindergarten room. They commissioned John W. Norton (1876 – 1934) a renowned muralist and teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Prairie School architect George Grant Elmslie (1871 – 1952) for the project. Elmslie created a beautiful kindergarten space with dark wood trim and doors; blackboards and shelving dimensioned for young children; and a sunroom with leaded glass windows.
Along one long wall of the classroom, Elmslie designed a frame for a series of murals by Norton featuring the months of the year. Six months are displayed simultaneously, and the murals are rotated seasonally. Art historian Mary Lackritz Gray explains that “Norton incorporated familiar symbols to designate each month; including a cat sitting by a fireplace for February; rainstorms and new foliage for April; apple blossoms and robins for May; Old Glory waving for July; a sloop running before the wind, high bluffs and light house for August; a turkey and hen in a farmyard with cornstalks in the background for November; and moonlight on a snowy mountainscape for December. (9) Unfortunately, the June mural was stolen, as were a number of paintings from the school’s large and impressive collection.
In the 1930s, more space was desired for active recreation, and the Jensen-designed landscape was razed. (10) In its place, the Board of Education constructed a one-story brick field house with a modern playground. Staffed by two teachers during afternoons and weekends, the field house provided sports and other projects such as civil defense training, rummage sales, and other numerous other PTA-sponsored events.
In 1993, the Chicago Board of Education selected Peirce as a specialty school, officially renaming it Helen C. Peirce School of International Studies. Several years later, the Board alleviated chronic overcrowding through a 1999 expansion project. DeStefano Partners and DLK Architects were responsible for this major addition. It houses seventeen additional classrooms, a cafeteria, a media center, and a computer lab, as well as music and art rooms.
Landscape improvements were undertaken through the Campus Park Program. The work included some elements inspired by Jensen’s earlier design. One is a passive seating area with a a pergola and native plants fronting on West Bryn Mawr Avenue. A series of circular metal benches recall Jensen’s iconic council ring.
- Mary S. Meyer, History of the Lake View Woman’s Club, 1918, p.4.
- Janice Marienthal Rosales “A History of the Helen C. Peirce School Trust 1915 – 1938,” Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School in Candidacy for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Department of Education Leadership and Policy Studies, Chicago, May, 1996, p 9.
- Mary Meyer, p. 4.
- Janice Marienthal Rosales, p. 10.
- “Ideal School System Soon— Seats for Every Pupil Are Assure After September— No More Half Day Sessions— Nine New Buildings and Seven Additions to End Difficulties,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Jan. 18, 1911, p.3.
- Mary S. Meyer, p. 21.
- Jens Jensen, draft of manuscript for Siftings, n.d. Jens Jensen Collection at the Morton Arboretum. For further discussion about these ideas see Julia Bachrach, The City in a Garden: A History of Chicago’s Parks, second edition. The Center for American Places at Columbia College, 2012, pp. 27- 29.
- Jensen’s original plans for the Peirce School Playground are held in The Architectural Drawings of Jens Jensen Collection at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan. http://bentley.umich.edu/research/guides/jensen/jensen_search.php?projectid=357
- Mary Lackritz Gray, A Guide to Chicago Murals, University of Chicago Press, 2001, p. 240.
- Janice Marienthal Rosales, pp. 76-77.