Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Carl Schurz High School (Part Two)

Carl Schurz High School, the exquisite design of Dwight H. Perkins (JWB, 2010)

Carl Schurz High School is perhaps the most photogenic school in Chicago.  It was designed by the Chief Architect of the Chicago School Board from 1905 to 1910, Dwight H. Perkins.  Perhaps the most impressive part of Perkins’s design is that it was just one of 40 designs that he created for the rapidly growing city.

We learn much about Dwight Perkins from reading the words of his son, Lawrence Perkins, in the oral history that he shared with Betty Blum in 1986. The younger Perkins, of course, was one of the founding members of Perkins + Will, the Chicago architectural firm that today employs 250 architects.

The Perkins family was not well off in the early days, and young Dwight worked in the Chicago stockyards, learning enough French before he left for work to meet the language requirement for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Broad overhanging eves, a Prairie Style staple (JWB, 2010)
In order for the young man to afford M.I.T., the Perkins family borrowed the tuition from Mrs. Charles Hitchcock.  Her kindness did not end there.  Once Perkins’s career was established she commissioned him to design Hitchcock Hall, her gift to the University of Chicago.  Perkins entered M.I.T. in 1886 where he studied until 1888, the second year of a three-year program, at which point he ran out of money.  The school found a way to put him on the faculty as a teacher of graphics so that he could attain his degree.

Shortly after graduation Perkins found employment with the greatest architectural firm in the world, that of Daniel Burnham, just as it was gearing up to lead the design phase of the 1893 Columbian Exposition.  At 24 years of age the young architect found himself in charge of Burnham’s private practice while the great architect and many of his assistants moved out to the South Side.  In fact, the drawings for the Monadnock building are in Dwight Perkins’s hand.

When the 1893 fair was concluded, Burnham came back to the downtown office and broke the news to Perkins . . . there wasn’t enough room for him without the fair, and he couldn’t put Perkins above Ernest Graham.  And here is one of those small details that force you to admire Daniel Burnham.  He gave Perkins a year’s worth of office rent along with a commission to design the Steinway Building at 64 East Van Buren, the site where the distinctive rust-orange CNA building stands today.

(JWB, 2010)
And what a feast of talent gathered around Perkins’s eleventh floor office in that new building.  As Wright himself described the scene in his Autobiography . . . “I had met Robert Spencer Myron Hunt, and Dwight Perkins.  Dwight had a loft in his new Steinway building—too large from him.  So we formed a group—outer office in common—workrooms screened apart in the loft of Steinway Hall.  These young men, newcomers in architectural practice like myself, were my first associates in the so-called profession of architecture.”

Walter Tomlinson, who partnered for a short time with Wright, was also there.  The Pond brothers, Irving and Allen, took an office.  Adamo Boari and Walter Burley Griffin were there.  So, too, was Marion Mahony, Griffin’s future wife, and Jules Guerin, who would so beautifully illustrate the Chicago Plan just a couple years later.  All this talent clustered in the top floors of the Steinway from 1896 to 1897, all of it brought together by Dwight Perkins. “He was the thing that they all had in common,” said Larry Perkins. “He put them together and he collected the rent.”

Sometime around toward the end of 1904 Dwight Perkins gained the position of Chief Architect for the School Board.  The five years that he spend in this position led to the most impressive school buildings in the city . . . Tilden on the south side, Lane Tech on the north side, Alfred Nobel on the west side, just to name a few.

And, of course, the stunning Carl Schurz at 3601 North Milwaukee Road.

Dwight Perkins’s tenure with the Board of Education was short-lived.  After 40 new schools and additions were approved and funded, the Board fired Perkins in 1910 for “incompetence, extravagance and insubordination.”  Today we can see that Perkins’s preference for the clean, relatively unadorned look of the Prairie Style was not well-suited for a board controlled by members who were beholden to the suppliers of cut stone.

This is what Lawrence Perkins, Dwight Perkins's son, called his greatest school design (JWB, 2010)
Writing of the situation the great New York architect and engineer, Peter B. Wight, the man who more than anyone else brought the use of terra cotta into the modern era, said, 

But there is a larger jury that it will reach composed not only of those architects who are best competent to form an opinion of the merits of a confrere's work but of a large and appreciative reading public. From this evidence they may be able to judge of his competence to carry out important work in the face of the usual discouragements which always stand in the way of every conscientious public official. They will also be able to form an opinion as to whether or not these buildings give evidence of extravagance, bearing in mind at the same time that all of them have been approved in the plan stage by his financial superiors before their erection and contracted out and paid for by the same parties with their eyes wide open. As for insubordination the public does not need to know, for it is hard to say what constitutes insubordination in the conduct of a public servant who has too much dignity and self respect to submit to foolish dictation by those who are accidentally for the time being higher than himself in authority but infinitely beneath him in intelligence or gentlemanliness.

Dwight Perkins went on to enjoy a long career in commercial and residential design.  It was he who filed suit to urge the creation of the Cook County Forest Preserve, a resource that today adds immeasurably to the natural wealth of the Chicagoland area. Mr. Perkins died in November of 1941.  When asked about the legacy that his father left for him, his son answered, “A standard of honor I have never come close to matching.”

In the next blog, I’ll take a look at the design of Carl Schurz High School, Perkins’s masterpiece of 1910, and its recent renovation.   

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