Nicholas Senn High School
5900 North Glenwood Avenue
Historical profile by Julia S. Bachrach
In 1910, Ella Flagg Young (1845–1918), a reform-minded Chicago Public School superintendent and the first woman head of a large city school system in America, announced that “every child should be taught to swim.” (1) Admitting that she herself could not swim, she suggested that swimming lessons were important for safety reasons and could provide children with a healthful form of exercise. (2) She advocated offering swimming instruction in schools “to both boys and girls impartially.” (3) Young soon announced that the first two high schools in Chicago to have indoor swimming pools would be Senn High School on the north side and Hyde Park High School on the south side. Arthur F. Hussander, who served as the Board of Education’s acting head architect at the time, produced plans for the Classical Revival style buildings, which were nearly identical.
Young and other administrators emphasized the need for a large campus with state-of-the-art athletic facilities. The school board acquired a ten-acre site to provide Senn High School with “the largest school playground in the city.” (4) Plans not only included the swimming pool and enormous gymnasium complex, but extensive grounds with tennis courts, a running track, and athletic fields.
The Classical Revival style building, composed of cream-colored brick was designed to accommodate 2,000 students. In addition to its impressive athletic facilities, the original building, which had fifty classrooms, included an enormous auditorium; laboratories for chemistry, zoology, and botany; rooms for book-keeping, stenography, and typing classes; and art studios for drawing, clay modeling, bookbinding, and jewelry and textile arts. The total construction budget was $600,000 with another $100,000 appropriated for the building’s equipment.
Soon after the building opened in the winter in of 1913, Senn High School was touted as a model of school design. Throughout the nation, increasing numbers of students were attending high school. A publication known as The American School Board Journal recognized the new trend for high school buildings in response “…to the growing demands of our civic and social life,.” (5) The journal noted that
…the American high school has become a highly organized institution, with numerous and widely varying courses of instruction. For its successful administration, the high school requires a carefully adapted building. (6)
This national publication highlighted both Senn and Hyde Park High Schools as examples of excellent design, including full sets of floor plans and photographs in the book.
The Board of Education named the new north side high school to honor Nicholas V. Senn (1844–1908), a prominent surgeon, teacher, researcher, author and philanthropist. According to his Chicago Daily Tribune obituary, the most difficult and formidable cases came to the clinic of Dr. Senn and his fame as a teacher was widespread.” (7) Born in Switzerland, Senn settled in Chicago and became surgeon-in-chief at St. Joseph’s Hospital and a professor of surgery at the University of Chicago. He also served as a United States delegate to international medical conferences.
By the late 1920s, Senn High School had become so overcrowded that students attended classes in seventeen adjacent portables. The board approved a $1,850,000 addition, which was designed by John C. Christensen in 1929. Although ground was broken for the addition in 1930, the economic crisis of the Great Depression slowed construction. Federal relief funds finally allowed for the completion of the large addition in 1934, providing seats for 1,600 more students. Following the original classical motif, the addition was designed as two symmetrical side wings.
During the post-WWII era, the Chicago Park District began an initiative to work with the Board of Education to expand open space adjacent to existing or new public schools. As part of this Ten Year Plan, the Chicago Park District in1947 acquired an 8-acre site west of Senn High School. The Senn High School PTA helped raise money for improvements to the athletic fields, and the Chicago Park District installed a playground, horseshoe courts, basketball and volleyball courts. Senn Park was dedicated in 1951.
Between the mid-1990s and 2010s, significant improvements were made to the green space surrounding Senn High School. This included moving the basketball courts and adding tennis courts, installing an artificial turf field, and creating a verdant passive area.Through an agreement between the Chicago Public Library and the Chicago Park District, the Young Lincoln Monument, a 1940s Charles Keck sculpture previously located in the GAR Room of the Cultural Center, has been installed in the passive area. Site Design Group landscape architects created the plan for park improvements incorporating the Lincoln. It has long been believed that Abraham Lincoln visited nearby Seven Mile House when he campaigned for the presidency in 1860; however, new research casts doubt on this local myth. (8)
- “ ‘Come In; The Water’s Fine’,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 7, 1910, p. 1.
- “Schools Make Good Swimmers,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec. 24, 1911, p. 4.
- “ ‘Come In; The Water’s Fine’.”
- “School to Teach All to Swim: Nicholas Senn Building to Have Immense Pool,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 9. 1911, p. 2.
- William C. Bruce, “High School Buildings,” American School Board Journal, v. 1, 1913, p. 3.
- “Well Known Chicagoans Who Died Yesterday Afternoon,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Jan. 3, 1908, p.2.
- LeRoy Blommaert, “Did Abraham Lincoln Ever Visit Edgewater?”, Edgewater Scrapbook, v. xx, no. 1, Spring 2009.