Grover Cleveland School

Grover Cleveland School

Grover Cleveland School. Courtesy of Chicago Board of Education Archives.

Grover Cleveland School
3121 West Byron
Historical profile by Julia S. Bachrach

Grover Cleveland School is considered one of the finest designs produced under the leadership of renowned Prairie style architect Dwight H. Perkins. “There is dignity and repose in the design” suggests Prairie School historian H. Allen Brooks “…it is monumental without being formidable.” (1)

Cleveland Elementary School

©2014 James Iska

 

Perkins designed Cleveland School in 1909 as one of four nearly identical buildings described as a “new type of school to meet Chicago’s needs.” (2) These four structures —the Nobel, Harper, Gray and Cleveland schools — were essentially built from the same set of construction documents. The prototype was considered the Nobel Type.

Harper High School

William Rainey Harper High School. Courtesy of Chicago Board of Education Archives.

 

In 1909, prior to the completion of the four schools, The American School Board Journal cited the Nobel Type plan as a national model for modern school design. The article explained that this type of 26-classroom structure would have six additional rooms for special purposes such as “manual training, domestic science, drawing, construction work, kindergarten and a library.” (3) It went on to say that building’s plan provided a library, kindergarten, and playrooms on the first floor. The layout would afford the community direct access to the library during non-school hours and keep small children from having to climb stairs.

Nobel Type 1909

Nobel type, 1909.

 

Perkins sited the first floor playrooms of the Nobel Type in close proximity to the playground, which would provide green space “equipped with swings, horses, giant strides, and running track.” (4) The Chicago Tribune noted that having playground space in front of the building was especially beneficial because the play spaces would be “entirely under the eye of the principal.” (5) Although commonplace today, the idea of designing schools that would include ample breathing space and play equipment was quite innovative at that time. Perkins was a member of the Chicago Playground Association’s board of directors, and a leader in the national Playground movement.

Cleveland Elementary School

©2014 James Iska

 

T-shaped in plan, the building has a bold geometric massing and a flat roof. Like the other Nobel type schools, it “displays the architect’s characteristic preference for large areas of patterned brickwork set in massive cubic compositions with generous provisions made for natural lighting of the interior.” (6) Perkins’s plans for Nobel Type 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. (7).

Cleveland Elementary School

©2014 James Iska

 

Perkins eliminated the costly cut stone details that had frequently been used in the design of earlier school buildings. In addition to its modern-looking massing, he enlivened the facades of the building through “… a repetition of inverted U-shaped motives formed in a variety of ways — the piers and lintels of the base, the patterned bands of brick enframing the individual bays of the fourth story, and the similar bands inclosing the entire window area of each elevation.” (8)

Cleveland Elementary School

©2014 James Iska

 

Throughout much of Perkins’s five-year tenure with the Board of Education, his efforts to revolutionize school architecture and bring reform to the Board Architect’s office proved extremely controversial. School 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 by citing the “four schools now under construction from the Nobel plans” as a specific example of good design that incorporated cost-saving measures. (9) Despite strong support from the public and the architectural community, the board officially ousted Perkins in April of 1910. (10) At that time, Cleveland and the other three Nobel Type schools were under construction. When the four school buildings opened along with Perkins’s most famous structure, Carl Schurz High School, on September 6, 1910, the Chicago Tribune reported that this group of schools were “of the most modern type” and added 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.” (11)

Cleveland Elementary School

©2014 James Iska

 

Despite Perkins’s political difficulties with the Board of Education, over the years, he has been well-recognized for his impact on school design. In 1952, the Architectural Forum described Dwight H. Perkins as “father of today’s ‘new’ school ideas.” (12) The Nobel Type, and particularly Cleveland School have received significant attention from architectural historians and other schools. Carl Condit, author of The Chicago School of Architecture, considered Cleveland School to be one of Perkins’s “most striking and original designs.” (13) The Historic American Building Survey documented Cleveland School in 1965, as part of an initiative to record “the significant architecture of Chicago,” with “special attention” to “the Chicago and Prairie Schools of Architecture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” (14)

Cleveland Elementary School

©2014 James Iska

 

The Chicago Board of Education had decided to name this “Nobel Type” school in honor of Grover Cleveland when it was under construction in 1909 (15). Grover Cleveland (1837 – 1908) served as both the 22nd and 24th President of the United States of America. In Chicago, he officially dedicated the World’s Columbian Exposition at its opening day, on May 1, 1893.

Notes

  1. Brooks, H. Allen, The Prairie School: Frank Lloyd Wright and his Midwest Contemporaries, University of Toronto Press, Toronto 1972, p. 113.
  2. “The New Chicago 1909 Type,” The American School Board Journal, vol. 38-39, 1909, p. 10.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. “New Type of School to Meet Chicago’s Needs,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb. 4, 1909, p. 5.
  6. Larry Homolka, Historic American Building Survey Documentation Form, ILL HABS- 1079, August, 1965.
  7. “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.
  8. The Clay-Worker, vols. 53-54, 1910, p. 69, and Brick, vol. 32, 1910, p. 84.
  9. “‘Ajax’ Perkins Struck by Bolt: Lightening Demand is Made on School Architect, but He Refuses,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb. 4, 1910, p. 1.
  10. School Trustees Oust Architect: Board at Regular Meeting Upholds Action of Perkins Trial Committee,” Chicago Daily Tribune, April 7, 1910, p. 9.
  11. Schools Open: Seats for All,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Sept. 6, 1910, p. 5.
  12. “Dwight H. Perkins- Father of Today’s ‘New’ School Ideas,” Architectural Forum, v. 97, Oct. 1952, p. 119.
  13. Brooks, H. Allen, The Prairie School: Frank Lloyd Wright and his Midwest Contemporaries, University of Toronto Press, Toronto 1972, p. 113.
  14. Larry Homolka, Historic American Building Survey Documentation Form, ILL HABS- 1079, August, 1965.
  15. “Leaflets May be Used in School,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 10, 1909.

 

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