Friday, April 2, 2010

The Oldest School in Chicago

It's amazing the directions that I head when I sit down to think about some of these old buildings. I start one place, end up another, and the next thing you know I'm ordering a century-old hand colored print of Charles Tyson Yerkes's house from an archival joint in the hinterlands of Minnesota, an artifact that has absolutely nothing to do with the subject with which I began.

That's what happened couple nights ago when I started thinking about a photo I took a while back of the oldest public school building in Chicago. It's now an apartment building, all fixed up, looking good among the reclaimed homes on Magnolia just off Clybourn. It was called the Headley School -- that name still is on the fa├žade.

It carried the name Nickersonville Primary School from its opening in 1875 until 1883, at which time it was named after Joel T. Headley, a respected author of several books on European history. As the memory of Headley faded, it was named the Mulligan Branch from 1918 to 1929 and the Thomas Branch from 1929-1933.

Somebody downtown must have gotten tired of answering questions about why the name of the school didn't match the name above the front door, because the school was named again after Headley in 1933 and carried the name until it closed in 1976, a little over a century after it opened.

We don't know the names of the original architects of the building. We can see, though, that the design is an attractive, yet efficient (and therefore economical) one. Thoughtful touches prevent it from being a three-story bore.

The center of the building is pulled away from the main mass, providing visual interest as well as an invitation to move through the front door. And look at the windows. How much different would this school be if the design had called for rectangular windows, rather than what we see here?

Notice that the curve of the windows becomes more dramatic on the third level, a small change that lifts our eyes toward the fine cast iron cornice that finishes the building. The cornice even includes a pediment over the central section, a nice classical touch that sets a tone -- this is a place for serious business. The pediment, as well as the cornice, would have cost a few extra bucks, but it makes a statement to the students and to the community.

The curved sandstone lintels, especially the large one over the front door that proclaims Public School, along with the carved name of the school a little higher and the date of its completion above that, help to break up the expanse of brick and windows while, again, focusing our attention on the front entrance.

Another nice touch is the string cornice that wraps around the building, an outward indication of the separation of functions within the school. Everything above the white cornice would have been classroom space; everything below it would have been for administrative and other specialized functions.

Headley looks like it would have been a good place to spend one's primary years. The windows are huge -- the classrooms would have been filled with natural light. If I had been a student here, I would have spent much of my time looking out those windows.

Now here's where one thing leads to another. A Google here -- a Google there -- the next thing you know you've been at the computer for three hours, your butt hurts, and you're still digging.

I found the 22nd Annual Report of the Chicago Board of Education for the Year Ending July 31, 1876 -- the first year of the school's operation. The Board put the school up for $27,153.82. The largest share of the cost, $9,924.25 was for masonry; carpentry came in second at $7,496.50. That iron cornice atop the building? It set the taxpayers back $1,339.50.

The school had 12 classrooms and eight teachers. $5,210.87 was the sum allotted for the teachers' salaries -- that's $651.86 a year for each teacher. The janitor was paid $700. But he had to keep the furnace running. That took 77 tons of hard coal at a cost $695. for that first year.

In 1985 the architectural firm of Bauhs and Dring designed a conversion that turned the old schoolhouse into upscale condominiums.

For just a shade under $800,000 you can grab a penthouse unit. A rooftop deck circles the entire roof, providing a 360-degree view of the city. Promotional photos for the unit clearly show how much light those old school windows allowed.

Pets are welcome, which is a change from the old days, another discovery I made.

On December 24, 1894 The Chicago Tribune reported that Justice Everett fined John Noonan, the janitor of the Headley School, ten bucks for violation of the humane statute. Apparently, sometime toward the end of November of that year Noonan threw a dog from a second floor window.

The teacher in the room probably couldn't have done much to stop him . . . he made more than she did.


Rosyr76 said...

I was so pleasantly surprised to find information about this apartment building. I work down the street from Magnolia and I walk past it everyday, I cant help but feel fascinated by the fact that it used to be a school.I love how it was preserved and I'm glad to read about its history.Ive always wondered what the story was behind this beautiful building.

R.D.Cornelious said...

With 54 CPS schools closing, It would be a good idea to reuse these buildings instead of creating a large vacant lot s like Chicago has been known to do on the south and west sides.

Anonymous said...

I attended this school in the 1960's - what a great use of this beautiful building, wish I could afford to live there now!

Marty Lobel said...

So which is really the oldest public school building in Chicago, this 1875 one or the still-active 1875 Ward Eelementary School, 2701 S Shields?
Marty Lobel

Unknown said...

I remember that old school on Magnolia street very well .. I attended that elementary school for a short period of time in the 1950's .. I had a girl friend who lived across the Street.. wish I could remember her name!!! I also attended the Old Knickerbocker before they tore it down and the new Oscar Mayer elementary which was very close to Headley when it opened also sometime in the 1950's .. great memories!!!

Marty Lobel said...

I just learned that the Ward Elementary School at 2701 S. Shields Ave. in Chicago is still active, or at least was still active in 2012. The date on the front of the building is 1874. The building has almost the identical archtecture as the 1875 Headley School on Magnolia Street, as the architects built several at the same time in the Italianate style.

Anonymous said...

I also attended the old Knickerbocker school (kindergarten), then Oscar Mayer when it opened in 1959 (first through third), then Headley (fourth and fifth) before moving to the suburbs.
Didn't know back then that it was an historic building! I can still remember the inside like it was yesterday. And the condos look absolutely amazing!

Unknown said...

I started going to Headley school in 1st grade, 1954 and would have attended all 8 yrs there.. but was transferred to the new Oscar Mayer school after Headley was designated as grades 1-6. Loved going to Headley, it was within walking distance from home

Unknown said...

We lived at 2157 North Magnolia, and three of my sisters and I attended Headley the last year it was open. All of my friends ended up at Oscar Mayer and my sisters and I ended up at St. Theresa's.

Ann said...

I went to headley 1945 thru 8th grade. It was so much fun. I can close my eyes and remember where all the classrooms were. My best friend lived right across the street from school.

Anonymous said...

I went there until 6th grade. I lived on Racine Ave and Dickens. It was a great school.

Anonymous said...

I went to Headley and St. Teresa

Anonymous said...

I hung out in the play area there, went St. Vincent's. Great memories.

Anonymous said...

Do you have any pictures of the interior of the school? We live there now and are fascinated by the history. I'm looking for images of the gymnasium specifically .

Anonymous said...

Was it Karen Mica

Anonymous said...

Went St Teresa, grad in 64

Anonymous said...

Desperately seeking Karen Poole.
I lived at Racine and Chicago in the late 1940's and early 1950's and attended Headley School.
I am desperately looking for a classmate named Karen Poole.
Can any of you that left posts about attending Headley School in the 40's and 50's be Karen? Especially the person who said they also lived on Racine and Dickens. I think that's where Karen lived.
I wrote a book about growing up in the west side of Chicago in the Racine Avenue neighborhood and Karen is mentioned many times in my book.
I would like her to have a copy.

Anonymous said...

Correction to my prior post. I lived at Racine and Dickens ... not Racine and Chicago.

Anonymous said...

I went to kindergarten at knickerbocker and also Oscar Meyer and moved to Indiana for my fourth grade year don't remember a whole lot about it

Anonymous said...

I went to school in 1966 lived next door to the school. I will always remember it. Bill Hines.

Anonymous said...

Also Mrs Frankie was my teacher