Friday, April 22, 2011

The Louis Nettelhorst School

Here’s a question for you . . . What Chicago elementary school has been in the same building since 1892, has piloted the Chicago Public School Healthy Eating Program, and in the last decade has been featured on CBS, PBS, NPR, 60 Minutes and in The New York Times?

JWB, 2011
It’s the Louis Nettelhorst School at 3252 North Broadway, a Chicago Public Schools Magnet Cluster School and one of the first C.P.S. community schools in Chicago.  The school educates 525 students from a cross section of the city.  Its population is about 18% African-American, 10% Hispanic, 55% White, with the remaining 10% mostly Asian.

The school is named after Louis Nettelhorst, who was the President of the Board of Education when the school was built.  The first reference to Nettelhorst is found in The Chicago Tribune on September 19, 1889 when as a member of the Board of Education he offered an opinion as to whether or not the County Board should provide a grant for poor children so that they could be given the “clothing, hats, and shoes . . . necessary to enable them to attend school.”

“It is as much the duty of the county board to provide clothing for the children as it is to give relief – coal, flour, and so on – to the indigent . . . If it is not done by the county board it will have to be done by the people,” Nettelhorst said.

JWB, 2011
In July of 1890 Nettelhorst, the only German member of the Board of Education, was elected as its President.  In a notoriously political body Nettelhorst held onto his position despite the fact that in 1891 he was one of only three Democrats on the Board. 

Perhaps his single most important achievement as a member of the Board was his guidance of the committee that oversaw the addition of over a hundred schools when in 1889 Chicago annexed 125 square miles of outlying townships and added a population of nearly a quarter-million people.

Nettelhorst was born in Bremen, Germany on February 4, 1851 and came to Chicago in 1870.  He acquired a position with the Bismarck Bund and Teutonia Insurance Company and went to New York as an agent, returning to permanent residency in Chicago in 1875. 

JWB, 2011
In Chicago Nettelhorst found employment as a bookkeeper with Charles Emmerich & Co., one of the largest feather dealers in the country.  Within a few years he was made a partner in the firm. [Chicago Tribune, March 15, 1893] 

In his early years he was a member of the Republican Party but became a Democrat in 1886, the same year the Mayor Carter H. Harrison appointed him to the Board of Education, the only political office that Nettelhorst held although he ran unsuccessfully for City Treasurer in 1891 on Carter Harrison’s ticket.

Then, suddenly in 1893 he died. The Tribune speculated that “Mr. Nettelhorst’s death . . . was caused primarily by an unusually severe attack of the grip two years ago.”

His funeral services gave testimony to the fact that Nettelhorst was one of the most popular German-American citizens of Chicago.  Thousands entered Turner Hall on the north side where Nettelhorst’s remains lay in state from noon until 2:00.  Six men from the Turner society, dressed in dark blue uniforms and bearing swords wrapped in black crape, did sentinel duty at the catafalque and kept the throng moving,” The Tribune reported on March 18.

JWB, 2011
In the 2:00 service which followed John McClaren, the President of the Board of Education eulogized Nettelhorst, saying, “Honest himself to the core he always expected honesty from his associates.  Any mean thing at once aroused his contempt.  There was never any doubt as to where he stood on any question.  Good common sense and practical ideas made him a wise counselor in educational matters, while his splendid business knowledge and habits were of the highest benefit in the management of the affairs of the board.”  [Chicago Tribune, March 18, 1893]

In the huge procession from Turner Hall at Clark and Oak Streets to Graceland Cemetery, four Chicago mayors acted as honorary pall bearers --  John Roche, DeWitt Cregier, Hempstead Washburne, and Carter Harrison.

Main entrance ornamentation (JWB, 2011)
So there’s mortality for you . . . a guy who was so beloved that thousands paid their respects during his final trip to Graceland, a procession led by four Chicago mayors.  Today, you have to dig pretty deep to find any reference to the fact that he ever existed.

But his name still lives on at the Nettelhorst School on Broadway, a school in which the educators are doing their best to live up to the ideals that Nettelhorst held dear.  For more on the impressive efforts going on there, look up the school’s website here

One of the more impressive aspects of the school is long tradition of embracing the arts.  There are two W.P.A. murals inside the building, Rudolph Weisenborn’s Contemporary Chicago and Ethel Spears’s Horses from Children’s Literature.

Michael Bonfiglio's Dotted Doors (south entrance); Mosaic
by Nettelhorst teacher Phyllis Dunbar (JWB, 2011)
Additionally, current faculty members and community members have decorated the school with works that proclaim the building as a center of joy rather than a torturous grind through rote learning and testing.  Nettelhorst’s exterior is decorated in a lively display that brings the century-old structure alive, even on the gloomiest day.

The architect who designed the original Nettelhorst back in the 1890’s was John J. Flanders, who was the architect for the Board of Education at the time.  Born on June 30, 1848, he was a second-generation Chicagoan whose father had come to the city in 1834.  He began his career as an architect in 1866, working for three firms before starting his own practice in 1874. 

John J. Flanders' 2,475 seat Haymarket Theater
Flanders designed the Maller’s Building on Quincy and LaSalle Streets, the first office building in the city to reach twelve stories.  He began work for the Board of Education in 1884, but perhaps his best known design was for the Haymarket Theater of 1887, which was demolished in 1950 to make room for what is now the Kennedy Expressway.

The Haymarket started out as a legitimate theater, but over the years its playbill spiraled down the hierarchy of entertainment – to a vaudeville theater from 1896 to 1916, then to a burlesque house from that time until it became a movie house in 1932.  Jazz Age Chicago has a great treatment of the theater here

The name of Flanders, like Nettelhorst, has disappeared from view.  For both men, though, the legacy lives on at the Nettlhorst School on Broadway where for a century boys and girls have started their long journeys toward adulthood.  That’s a good enough legacy for me. 

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