Thursday, August 4, 2011

Carl Schurz High School (Part Three)

The horizontal emphasis of the Prairie Style is the heart of Dwight Perkins's design for Carl Schurz (JWB, 2010)

Call it what you want – Arts and Crafts, Prairie School, a stunning union of the two – there is no doubt that Carl Schurz High School is one heck of a building.  Finished between 1908 and 1910, the building is a clear representation of Dwight Heald Perkins’s assertion that a school should be so solidly designed that it would serve as the center of a community – that schools would serve a larger purpose, both physically and symbolically, than just the housing of classrooms.

In the process of implementing this philosophy, Perkins turned toward a new style of school design, building upon Louis Sullivan’s call for a uniquely American style of architecture.  The Prairie Style began naturally enough in Chicago, the heart of the great Midwestern prairie.  The style emphasizes a natural integration between building and landscape, horizontal lines, hipped roofs with broad eves, windows assembled in horizontal lines, and restraint in the incorporation of decoration.

The subtle window treatments echo the Prairie Style
made famous by Frank Lloyd Wright (JWB, 2010)
One of the most famous proponents of the Prairie Style was, of course, Frank Lloyd Wright, whose idea of “organic architecture” asserted that any well-designed structure should look as if it naturally grew out of its site. [www.]

All of these design elements are harmoniously arranged in the design for Carl Schurz High School.  Look at the original building that runs perpendicular to Addison Street, and you will find them – the broad eves, the ranks of windows emphasizing the horizontal nature of the main building, the minimal use of decoration.

If there was a Cooperstown for Prairie Style designs, Carl Schurz would occupy a place equivalent to Babe Ruth’s or Grover Cleveland Alexander’s.  This place is IT.

Unfortunately, by the 1990’s time had taken its toll.  The roof leaked and had been covered by asphalt shingles.  Windows were deteriorating – and there are dozens and dozens of them – in great rows of rotting wood.

In an enlightened move, the Board of Education decided to restore the building to its former glory.  Carol Ross Barney, a graduate of the University of Illinois School of Architecture, was give the assignment to oversee the renovation.

Natural materials was a fundamental ingredient of the Prairie Style
Can you imagine covering this with asphalt shingles?  (JWB, 2010)
Ms. Barney was in 2005 awarded the Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture by the American Institute of Architects, recognizing a career or architectural achievement.  She is a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, one of its highest honors.  She has won four Institute Honor Awards from AIA and 20 AIA Chicago Design Awards.  Her firm has undertaken such notable projects as the new Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the Vietnam Memorial on Chicago's Riverwalk just west of Michigan Avenue.

In the renovation of Carl Schurz Ms. Barney’s firm oversaw the preparation of detailed drawings and specifications that changed the original design on as small a scale as possible.  Following the painstaking preliminary work, 160,000 square feet of brick and terra cotta were cleaned, tuckpointed and rebuilt.  1,200 original windows were either restored or, if they were too far gone, replaced.  The asphalt shingles were removed and the original deteriorated clay tiles were replaced with new clay tiles.  The complete project cost 15.5 million dollars.

Some might say that 15.5 million is a lot to spend on a building that is over a hundred years old, a school building no less.  But take a look at the finished project.  This was a building designed by a Chicagoan, according to principles codified over a period of decades by Chicagoans.  It is a mighty and majestic structure that stands as a symbol for the importance of education in the advancement of a people.

Even the influence of the Japanese style that so intrigued the Prairie
Style designers is in evidence (JWB, 2010)
John Ruskin, the great Victorian art critic whose Seven Lamps of Architecture, published in 1849, was a huge influence on the Prairie Style designers, died just ten years before Carl Schurz was finished.  It was Ruskin who said, “Taste is not only a part and index of morality, it is the only morality.  The first, and last, and closest trial question to any living creature is ‘What do you like?’  Tell me what you like, I’ll tell you what you are.”

Liking this grand old building enough to bring it back to life says so very much about who we are in this great city by the lake. 

1 comment:

Jill said...

Nice article are this beautiful building and its restoration back to its prarie style.