Isabelle C. O’Keeffe Elementary School
6940 Merrill Avenue
Historical profile by Elizabeth A. Patterson
O’Keeffe Elementary School honors Isabelle C. O’Keeffe (?-1922), a woman who played an important role in the history of the Chicago Public Schools. Born Isabelle Kelly, O’Keeffe attended Chicago public schools and taught at the Graham Elementary School for six years before she married. In 1893, she became vice president of the International Press League, a mixed gender group of those involved in newspaper work. That same year, she founded the Catholic Women’s League, and served as its president for three years. O’Keeffe became a member of the Chicago Board of Education in 1898, serving until 1904, and then again from 1907 to 1910. She led the movement to establish kindergartens in the Chicago school system, supported education in “household arts,” pushed for bath facilities in the schools, and originated the “penny lunch,” which provided inexpensive hot lunches to poor school children. (1)
Not long after her death in 1922, the Board of Education recognized O’Keeffe’s contributions by naming a school building in her honor. The new O’Keeffe Elementary School was to be located in the rapidly expanding South Shore neighborhood, where it would relieve overcrowding in the older Parkside School, not far to the west.
The Annual Report of the Business Manager [of the Board of Education] for 1925 reported that Board Architect John C. Christensen “has completed plans and specifications, contracts have been awarded, and construction of [O’Keeffe Elementary School] is now in process.” (2) In point of fact, the O’Keeffe design can be credited not only to Christensen, but to Edgar D. Martin,and George D. Tesch as well. (3)
O’Keeffe was just one of an unprecedented number of elementary and junior high schools, including Hirsch Junior High, which the Board of Education pushed to build over a short period of time during the mid-1920s. In 1924, the reform-minded school board appointed by recently-elected Mayor William Dever had hired Edgar Martin to supervise the ambitious building program, in effect elevating him over “Board Architect” Christensen, who was assigned to run the newly-created “Bureau of Architecture.” In any event, Martin and Christensen apparently worked closely with other staff architects to design the many new schools. The O’Keeffe School blueprints credit Christensen as “Architect,” Martin as “Supervisory Architect,” and George Tesch, a staff architect who worked for the Board of Education into the 1950s, as having “designed” the school. (4)
In the fall of 1926, O’Keeffe Elementary students began attending a handsome and eclectic two-story building incorporating many Tudor Gothic elements. The red brick structure, trimmed with limestone, runs north-south, facing Merrill Avenue. The main, east façade features a central block capped by a slate mansard roof. A projecting, one-story bay and finialed, engaged buttresses enliven this section of the building. Thin, octagonal Jacobean towers with wind-vane-topped copper domes bracket the central block. Just beyond these tall, narrow towers are the building’s Tudor-arched portals, each set into a more squat, crenellated block tower and recessed beneath a projecting oriel bay. Beyond these entrances, at either end of the building, are crenellated end sections enhanced with additional buttresses and Tudor-arched windows. Another set of Tudor-ornamented entrances can be found at each end of the building, on the north and south facades.
The impressive architectural detailing carried over to the building’s interior. Heavy Tudor Gothic ornament, including a Tudor-arched proscenium, adorned the assembly hall. The kindergarten room featured a fire place an inset mosaic tile panel.
To speed the construction of O’Keeffe and the many other new schools of the mid-1920s, Supervisory Architect Martin and Board Architect Christensen had developed a streamlined new building process.As Christensen explained in the 1925 Report of the Business Manager, “the former method of construction requiring the use of steel and tile for the structural parts has been replaced by reinforced concrete” and the Board had begun “awarding general contracts” in place of hiring various sub-contractors on a lowest-bid basis. (5) Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that these supposedly more efficient construction methods had backfired when the structural concrete at O’Keeffe and 31 other schools constructed in 1925 and 1926 began to fail.
In May of 1929, a group of three structural engineering firms issued a scathing report detailing failures in “design, construction, and materials” at the 32 schools, most notably the failure to properly tie the reinforcing rods back into the walls. (6) The School Board immediately shut down two schools – the Hale and Peck elementary schools — for fear that they were an imminent danger to students. Eleven other schools (Edwards, Gompers, Cook, Farnsworth, Ebinger, Twain, Lyon, Hitch, Brennan, Clinton, and Lewis) were deemed to be “in advanced stages of disintegration,” but were thought to be salvageable with prompt repairs.” (7) The fault for these “defectives,” as they were known, was laid variously at the feet of Supervisory Architect Martin, who was indeed known for his experimentation with concrete building methods, and the general contractor and his sub-contractors, who were said to have supplied inferior concrete.
Fortunately for the students of O’Keeffe Elementary School, their facility was not among the worst of the defective buildings. In fact, O’Keeffe was among the last seven of the schools to be repaired. In June of 1934, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that the schools would be repaired with “suspended roofs similar to the hanging domes of the Travel and Transport building at the [Century of Progress] World’s Fair.” (8) Rather than completely reconstructing the schools’ faulty roof structures, the existing roofs would be hung from new “iron beams which will be supported from heavy brick pilasters which will be erected on the sides of the building.” (9) At an average cost of $16,000 per school, this approach was both “novel” and “economical.” In addition to O’Keeffe, the Cook, Mann, O’Toole, Ruggles, Scammon, and Shoop schools received the new suspended roofs.
Two years later, the School Board expanded O’Keeffe Elementary with the help of Federal Works Progress Administration funds. The two-story, 12,000-square-foot addition to the structure’s northwest side supplanted three portable classrooms. Designed by Board Architect Christensen, the addition opened in September 1936. (10) (Christensen had regained his previous role as department head with Martin’s departure in early 1926.)
During the 1920s, the population of O’Keeffe School’s South Shore neighborhood had grown dramatically, from nearly 32,000 in 1920, to nearly 79,000 in 1930. The new arrivals had been mostly of Irish, Swedish, German, and Jewish extraction, joining the native-born white Protestants who already lived in the area. African Americans increasingly moved into South Shore after 1950, constituting about 10% of the neighborhood’s population by 1960. (11) Nevertheless, O’Keeffe Elementary remained an all-white school until January of 1962, when African American 8th graders from the overcrowded Parkside School joined the O’Keeffe student body. (12)
By the mid-1960s, the O’Keeffe School, too, was again overcrowded, and six portable classrooms were placed in use. In 1971, “a 14 classroom ‘relocatable’ annex” was built on the school property. It is still in use today. O’Keeffe Elementary, a “turnaround school” now operated by the Academy for Urban School Leadership and known as O’Keeffe School of Excellence, was renovated in 2013. (13)
- Isabelle C. O’Keeffe, booklet published in conjunction with the naming of the O’Keeffe School in the collection of the Chicago History Museum; Isabelle C. O’Keeffe, undated memorandum in the collection of the Chicago Board of Education Archive.
- The Annual Report of the Business Manager [of the Board of Education]for the Year Ending December 31, 1925, p. 17.
- Architectural drawing dated December 17, 1924, in the collection of the Chicago History Museum.
- Architectural drawing dated December 17, 1924, in the collection of the Chicago History Museum. George D. Tesch, A.I.A., designed schools for many years, resigning his longtime position with the Board of Education in 1957. “Tesch Resigns School Board Architect Post,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 21, 1957;1955 American Architects Directory George S. Koyl, editor (New York: R.R. Bowker Company, 1955), p. 554.
- Report of the Business Manager for 1925, p. 18
- “Reveal Neglect, Poor Work on Closed Schools,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 18, 1929.
- “City Schools Shut; Unsafe; Engineers Find New Buildings Peril To Pupils; 30 Others Rapidly Falling to Ruin,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 17, 1929.
- “Seven Schools to Get New Roofs of Suspended Type,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 14, 1934.
- Ibid. (6/14/34)
- “Locke and O’Keefe (sic) School Additions Get O.K. of PWA, Chicago Daily Tribune, January 11, 1936; “School Building Program to Get Under Way Feb. 8,” Chicago Daily Tribune, February 1, 1936; The Annual Report of the Business Manager [of the Board of Education]for the Year Ending December 31, 1942, p. 75.
- The Chicago Fact Book Consortium, eds., “South Shore,” Local Community Fact Book: Chicago Metropolitan Area (Chicago: The Chicago Fact Book Consortium, 1984), pp. 116-119.
- “Parents Hear School Aid on Integration, Chicago Daily Tribune, November 3, 1961.
- http://okeeffe.auslchicago.org/about; http://www.pbcchicago.com/content/projects/project_detail.asp?pID=18950.