Pilsen Community Academy (originally Frank J. Jirka School)
1420 West 17th Street
Historical profile by Julia S. Bachrach
Located on Chicago’s Lower West Side, Pilsen Community Academy was originally known as Jirka School. Its former name paid tribute to Frank J. Jirka (1858–1895), a Czechoslovakian-born physician who opened “a makeshift schoolroom in a deserted store on Blue Island Avenue” in the 1880s when “no elementary schools” served his overcrowded Bohemian neighborhood. (1) After Mayor Dewitt Creiger appointed Dr. Jirka to the Board of Education in 1890, the Czech physician advocated for a new public school for the Pilsen community. In 1898, three years after Jirka died, the Pilsen school was planned and officially named in his honor. (2) The name remained until the mid-1980s, at which point it became Pilsen Community Academy. The new name recognizes the history of the area, which was originally named to honor a town in the Czech Republic known as Plzeň, as well as the community’s modern-day identity as a flourishing Latino neighborhood.
In the fall of 1898, just prior to Jirka School’s construction, its architect, Normand S. Patton, found himself embroiled in a bitter dispute with Joseph Downey, an influential member of the Board of Education’s Buildings and Grounds Committee. The controversy began when Downey made a board resolution “limiting the architect” to the use of “standard hydraulic red pressed brick” and requiring that he use “cut stone dressings for all basements.” (3) Patton strongly opposed the dictate, as he believed it would unnecessarily standardize designs. He suggested that “in one place red brick and a flat roof might be in artistic taste, while in another buff brick and a red tile gable roof would harmonize with other objects nearby.” (4)
Patton believed that Downey had an ulterior motive in presenting the resolution. Pointing out that Chicago Hydraulic Pressed Brick Company was the only local firm to manufacture this type of brick, Patton asserted that the action“ was in the interest of a monopoly.” (5) He publicly denounced Downey’s resolution as being “against the interest of taxpayers and favorable to the makers of cut stone and this particular brand of pressed brick.” (6) In response, the Buildings and Grounds Committee put Patton on trial for insubordination. After finding Patton guilty of violating discipline and impugning the integrity of a trustee, the Board of Education discharged him by unanimous vote in November of 1898.
By the time of his dismissal, Patton had completed Jirka School’s design and the construction contract had been awarded. The building, which opened in 1899, is very similar in design to that of Frances Willard School, which was completed the prior year. Despite Patton’s objections to the board’s dictate, both buildings were composed of red brick with cut limestone cladding along the entire lower portion of the structures. Willard School was demolished in the mid-1990s, and thus only Pilsen School remains today. Among other extant Patton-designed schools are Lakeview High School, Eugene Field School, Andrew Jackson School (now Galileo Math and Science Academy), and Spry School.
The Pilsen Community Academy building is comprised of three rectangular pavilions, each with its own hipped roof. All three pavilions rise three-and-a-half stories, but the central pavilion stands taller than the two on either side. The central pavilion is joined to the outer two by a pair of narrow, two-and-a-half story, flat-roofed bays known as hyphens. These hyphens are recessed, but have projections housing the building’s two entrances. The facades of the entranceways have handsome Classical limestone elements, such as tapestry-like details surrounding the doorways and acanthus leaf finials above the entablatures. Other Classical details are repeated across the building’s brick facades. These include dentils, string courses, and quoin-like brickwork.
The central pavilion features blind arches just below the roof line and a three-sided projecting bay at its base. Between the windows of the second and third stories, an ornate cut-stone bas-relief panel includes the words “Public School.” This panel is flanked by two ornamental wreaths that surround shields, each of which has an upside down Y-motif as its centerpiece. This iconic local architectural element symbolizes the Chicago River and its two branches. The motif was especially meaningful at the time of Jirka School’s construction, as Chicago was then taking the bold step of reversing the flow of the Chicago River to divert the sewage that had previously emptied into Lake Michigan.
The building’s history also reflects other important developments in Chicago at the turn of the century. It was among the earliest schools to include a kindergarten room and assembly hall along with its 22 classrooms. (7) In 1907, Jirka School began to provide “vacation school.” An initiative inspired by a reform movement on the East Coast, the program offered instruction during summertime to children who lived in the city’s most crowded neighborhoods. Several years late, Jirka School was among eight Chicago Public Schools to begin offering free dental services to its students. This program was funded in part by philanthropist and businessman Julius Rosenwald. (8)
In the 1980s, after Jirka School was renamed Pilsen Community Academy, neighborhood residents advocated for improvements to the structure. In 1999, the Chicago Public Schools hired architects Bauer Latoza Studio to rehabilitate the historic building. The $1.7 million project included a new roof, tuck-pointing and other masonry work, replacement windows that match the originals, and landscape improvements.
- “Susan Fry, Jirka School Named for Civic Leader, Physician, Chicago Tribune, March 24, 1966, p. 11.
- “Dewey’s Name for A School,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 14, 1898, p. 16.
- “Downey Makes Sharp Retort: Answers Architect Patton’s Implied Charge of Official Favoritism,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct. 1, 1898, p. 3.
- “Patton Says it is a Joke: Board of Education Architect Laughs at Charges of Insubordination— Pays his respects to Downey.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct. 5, 1898, p. 12.
- “Downey Makes Sharp Answers Architect Patton’s Implied Charge of Official Favoritism,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct. 1, 1898, p. 3.
- Forty-fifth Annual Report of the Board of Education for the Year Ending June 23, 1898, published by the Board of Education of the City of Chicago, 1899, p. 113
- “Free Dental Work Great Benefit to Pupils in Chicago,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec. 9, 1913, p. 15.