Alfred Nobel Elementary School

Nobel School

Nobel School, ca. 1930. Courtesy of Chicago Board of Education Archives.

Nobel School
4127 W. Hirsch Street
Historical profile by Julia S. Bachrach

In 1909, The American School Board Journal described Dwight H. Perkins’s plans for the new Alfred Nobel School as a national model for modern school design. Published prior to the school’s completion, the article explained that the 26-classroom structure would have six additional rooms for special purposes such as “manual training, domestic science, drawing, construction work, kindergarten and a library.” (1) It went on to say that building’s plan provided a library, kindergarten, and playrooms on the first floor. This layout provided the community with direct access to the library during non-school hours, kept small children from having to climb stairs, and sited playrooms in close proximity to the playground “equipped with swings, horses, giant strides, and running track.” (2) Though commonplace today, at that time, the idea of designing schools to include adjacent green space with play equipment was very innovative, and Perkins figured prominently in the national playground movement.

Nobel School

©2014 James Iska

Identifying another pioneering aspect of the design, The American School Board Journal reported: “Tower toilets for pupils are located on each floor; the girls’ and boys’ at opposite ends of the building.”(3) When Perkins had introduced this innovation in twin plans for Trumbull and Tilton Schools two years earlier, the Chicago Tribune described “toilet conveniences…in ‘tower rooms’ on each floor,” as a “radical feature” of school architecture because teachers would no longer have to herd children down to dreary overcrowded basements to use the bathroom. (4)

Nobel School

©2014 James Iska

The light brown brick building is T-shaped in plan. Heavy in its massing and flat roofed, the structure was quite modernistic, especially in comparison with the large collection of Chicago schools designed in historical styles only a decade earlier. Perkins’s plans for Nobel School were guided by his intention to provide as much natural light in the classrooms as possible. In fact, he provided “one square foot of glass for each four square feet of floor area” in the building. (5)

Nobel School

©2014 James Iska

In addition to the bold and geometric massing, one of the most innovative aspects of the building’s appearance is its use of tapestry brick. Rather than using the lavish cut stone decorative details commonly used by earlier school architects, Perkins enlivened Nobel School’s façade with patterned brickwork and terra cotta. He created the decorative motifs by incorporating “a wire-cut face and mat-Finish brick” called “Rugosa” with rough-faced types known as “Devonshire,” alternating the size, shape and shades of the grey and tan brick. (6) Brick piers that divide the window bays stretch from the second story to the top of the third story, emphasizing the contrasts between the vertical and horizontal lines.

Nobel School

©2014 James Iska

Perkins advocated using identical or at least similar plans and construction documents for multiple school buildings as another cost-saving measure. Nobel was one of four structures following a “new type of school to meet Chicago’s needs.” (7) The others were Cleveland, Gary, and Harper schools. Unlike some of the other types specifically designed to accommodate later additions, the Nobel type was meant “to be built all at once” to accommodate locations “where the immediate need of a large building is apparent.” (8)

©2014 James Iska

©2014 James Iska

Many architectural historians consider the Nobel School type an important example of Prairie style architecture. The Grover Cleveland School, one of the four buildings that followed the “Nobel-type” is featured in both Chicago’s Famous Buildings and the AIA Guide to Chicago Architecture. (9) Renowned architectural historian H. Allen Brooks declared the Nobel School type “the finest design prepared under Perkins’s stewardship.” Brooks elaborated: “There is dignity and repose in the design; it is monumental without being formidable.” (9)

Nobel School

©2014 James Iska

During Perkins’s own period, his efforts to revolutionize school architecture and bring reform to the Board Architect’s office proved extremely controversial. Throughout his five-year tenure, board members were increasingly displeased with his efforts to stave off political pressure. When the board charged him with “incompetency, extravagance, and insubordination” in 1910, he defended his work citing “four schools now under construction from the Nobel plans” as a specific example of good a design that incorporated cost-saving measures. (11) Despite strong support from the public and the architectural community, the board officially ousted Perkins in April of 1910. (12)

On September 6, 1910, the newly completed Nobel School opened its doors at the same time as its three sister buildings—Cleveland, Gary, and Harper Schools did—along with Perkins’s most famous educational building—Carl Schurz High School. The Chicago Tribune reported that “the five new buildings” were “of the most modern type.” (13) The article also stated that for “the first time since Chicago graduated from village into the city class, the school facilities are able to accommodate the total school population.” (14)

Nobel type, 1909.

Nobel type school drawing. Chicago Daily Tribune, February 4, 1909, p. 5

The Board of Education’s Special Committee on Naming had decided to name a school for Alfred Nobel in 1904, several years prior to the construction of the building. (15) The board first named a branch school in honor of Nobel while awaiting completion of Perkins’s new Nobel School in 1910. A Swedish scientist and entrepreneur, Alfred Nobel (1833 – 1896) held patents on more than 350 inventions including dynamite. In his will, he left an enormous endowment to establish the Nobel Prize to honor men and women throughout the world who have made outstanding contributions in work for peace or achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, and literature. (16)

Nobel School

©2014 James Iska

Notes

1. “The New Chicago 1909 Type,” The American School Board Journal, vol. 38-39, 1909, p. 10.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. “New Type of School; No Basement: Expected by Board of Education’s Architect That It Will Stop Crowding,” Chicago Daily Tribune, December 14, 1907, p. 3.
5. Ibid.
6. The Clay-Worker, vols. 53-54, 1910, p. 69, and Brick, vol. 32, 1910, p. 84.
7. “The New Chicago 1909 Type,” p. 10.
8. Ibid.
9. Siegel, Arthur, ed., Chicago’s Famous Buildings, University of Chicago Press, 1965, p. 160; Sinkevitch, Alice & Laurie McGovern Peterson, AIA Guide to Chicago Architecture, Third Edition, University of Illinois Press, 2014, p. 280.
10. Brooks, H. Allen, The Prairie School: Frank Lloyd Wright and his Midwest Contemporaries, University of Toronto Press, Toronto 1972, p. 113.
11. “ ‘Ajax’ Perkins Struck by Bolt: Lightening Demand is Made on School Architect, but He Refuses,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb. 4, 1910, p. 1.
12. “School Trustees Oust Architect: Board at Regular Meeting Upholds Action of Perkins Trial Committee,” Chicago Daily Tribune, April 7, 1910, p. 9.
13. “Schools Open: Seats for All” Chicago Daily Tribune, Sept. 6, 1910, p. 5.
Ibid.
14. Proceedings of the Board of Education of the City of Chicago July 8, 1903- June 22, 1904, Chicago, 1904, p. 653.
15“Alfred Nobel: The Man Behind the Nobel Prize,” Nobelprize.org: The Official Website of the Nobel Prize, Available on http://www.nobelprize.org/alfred_nobel/

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