Alexander von Humboldt Elementary School

Von Humboldt Elementary School

The 1896 Humboldt School designed by W. August Fiedler. Courtesy of Bill Latoza.

Alexander von Humboldt Elementary School
2622 West Hirsch Avenue
Historical profile by Julia S. Bachrach and Bill Latoza

In May of 2013, when the Chicago Board of Education made a final decision to shutter fifty schools throughout the city, Alexander Von Humboldt School was the only one to receive a split vote. Several months earlier, two board members visited the school after parents and teachers asked them to come see the “programs and conditions that they felt made the school deserving of another chance.” (1) Although the visit went well, four of the board’s six members voted to close down Von Humboldt School. Altogether, four public schools are no longer open in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, because the board also unanimously decided to shutter three nearby buildings— Duprey, Ryerson, and Lafayette schools.

Von Humboldt School

© 2013 James Iska

Alexander Von Humboldt School was one of the first schools designed by John J. Flanders after his appointment as official Chicago school architect in 1884. The original 15-classroom building was located on the corner of Hirsch and Rockwell Streets. Rendered in a simple expression of the Italianate style, the red brick building was T-shaped in plan.

Von Humboldt School

© 2013 James Iska

Flanders enlivened the facades with decorative brickwork and unglazed red terra cotta details. At the original front façade, the terra cotta elements include panels that read “Erected 1884” and “Von Humboldt School.”

Von Humboldt Elementary School

© 2013 James Iska

Flanders also sought to improve Chicago school designs by providing better light and ventilation. Some of his advances can be seen in the facades of the oldest section of Von Humboldt School, such as its numerous large windows, some of which are rectangular and others have arched hoods. He provided upgraded heating systems ventilated with tall vertical chimneys that had exterior brickwork. (One can still be seen at the North Rockwell Street façade today.) The school board commended Flanders for making these improvements, describing his early buildings as “model school buildings, fully equal, if not superior, to any in the country.” (2)

Von Humboldt School

© 2013 James Iska

As the Humboldt Park neighborhood grew rapidly in the early 1890s, Von Humboldt School became quite overcrowded. In 1895, the Board of Education allocated more than $72,000 to build a second structure adjacent to the original the building. Designed by W. August Fiedler, who replaced Flanders as head architect in 1893, the new structure had nineteen rooms and an assembly hall. (The assembly hall was located on the third floor.) Although the new school was an entirely freestanding building, it related to the earlier Flanders-designed structure through the use of red brick and cut limestone. The Chicago Tribune published a rendering of Fiedler’s design without even showing the original adjacent building, which was still in operation. (3)

Von Humboldt elementary school

Seen from Hirsch and Rockwell streets, the first Von Humboldt school, built in 1884, is on the right and the 1896 structure is left.

Fiedler’s Von Humboldt School bears strong resemblance to several of his other building such as Augustus Burley and Richard Yates schools. All three have heavy bases articulated in limestone which boldly contrast with the lively red brick facades above. They each have three sided projecting bays with portal windows beneath copper cornices that extend across the upper level of all facades.

Von Humboldt School

© 2013 James Iska

Completed in 1896, the new Von Humboldt School fronted onto West Hirsch Street. Unlike the entrance façade, the secondary West Talman Avenue façade conveys the Italian Renaissance style through symmetrical repeating arched windows, a pronounced projecting cornice, and unglazed terra cotta medallions with sculptural busts of female figures.

Von Humboldt School

© 2013 James Iska

Despite the large number of new classrooms, community members immediately complained about continuing problems with overcrowding. Only weeks after the building opened, the Humboldt Park Improvement Club wrote a letter to the Chicago Tribune noting that it still didn’t meet the needs of the community. In fact, approximately a hundred students were reduced to half-day shifts and more than two hundred were housed in rented rooms. (4) This problem persisted until the end of WWI, when the board directed Arthur Hussander, who had served as head architect since 1910, to design an addition for Von Humboldt School.

Von Humboldt Elementary School

West Talman Avenue facade of the 1896 Von Humboldt School. Courtesy of Bill Latoza.

Completed in 1921, Hussander’s addition includes two masses. One of them, which fronted onto West Hirsch Street, connected the original 1884 building with Fielder’s 1896 structure. The other Hussander-designed addition extends north along North Talman Avenue. Both additions were executed in red brick and limestone which helps unify the complex into one large building. The North Talman Avenue addition has a larger auditorium on the first floor. An ornate secondary entranceway marking the location of the auditorium has three arched openings embellished with lavish carved limestone details.

Von Humboldt Elementary School

© 2013 James Iska

Von Humboldt School

Limestone detail on Hussander addition to Von Humboldt School. © 2013 James Iska

The Public Building Commission made some improvements to Von Humboldt School in the early 1990s; however, the building was still in need of additional work. As part of the CPS Historic Schools Initiative, the structure received a major renovation in 2008. Undertaken by BauerLatoza Studio, the ambitious project resulted in a sensitive renovation that repaired and re-pointed the masonry, re-created the missing terra cotta and stone detailing, and replaced the windows with ones that matched the original designs.

At the beginning of the 2008-2009 school year, Ana Roque de Duprey School moved its operations from 1405 N. Washtenaw into the Von Humboldt building. Duprey continued operating as a separate school until the closing of Von Humboldt in June 2013.

Notes

  1. Victoria Johnson “Von Humboldt to Close Along with Three Other Humboldt Park Schools” DNA Chicago, May 22, 2013, available at http://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20130522/humboldt-park/von-humboldt-close-along-with-three-other-humboldt-park-schools
  2. Thirtieth Annual Report of the Chicago Board of Education for the Year Ending June 24, 1884, p. 84.
  3. “Bids for New Schools,” Chicago Daily Tribune, January 11, 1896, p. 13
  4. “Even Now There is No Room: Humboldt Park Children Badly Overcrowded in Their School,” Chicago Daily Tribune, January 22, 1896, p. 10.
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