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Preservation Chicago Looks to Save School Buildings ... If Not Schools

By Adeshina Emmanuel | May 13, 2013 7:54am | Updated on May 13, 2013 8:24am
 Graeme Stewart Elementary School, 4225 N. Kenmore Ave., was designed by Prairie School architect Dwight Perkins.
Graeme Stewart Elementary School, 4225 N. Kenmore Ave., was designed by Prairie School architect Dwight Perkins.
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DNAinfo/Adeshina Emmanuel

UPTOWN — A preservation group wants to protect historic school buildings facing closure, even if that means the schools are reused as condominium apartments.

Preservation Chicago board members met in early May to brainstorm how to advocate for reuse rather than the wrecking ball for a select list of the city's most architecturally significant school buildings, said Jonathan Fine, the organization's executive director.

A list of schools it would champion hasn't been finalized, but Fine said Graeme Stewart Elementary School is a topic of discussion. The school was designed by famed Prairie School architect Dwight Perkins and opened in 1907.

Possible reuses for the school include high-end condos and rental apartments, said Fine. He acknowledged his group's mission is "less concerned with what the end use is and more concerned with preserving the building."

 Uplift Community High School teacher Karen Zaccor speaks at an April community meeting in support of keeping Stewart school open as a school.
Uplift Community High School teacher Karen Zaccor speaks at an April community meeting in support of keeping Stewart school open as a school.
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"Our organization is a historic preservation organization. We're not a school advocacy organization. Our mission is to advocate for the preservation of historic buildings," Fine said.

Preservation Chicago puts together the annual "Chicago 7" list of endangered architectural gems, and has launched numerous successful campaigns to raise awareness and garner support for at-risk buildings.

Uptown resident Karen Zaccor is a teacher at Uplift Community High School in Uptown and an organizer with North Side Save Our Schools. She understands that Preservation Chicago's mission is to save buildings but was perturbed to hear that they are not speaking out in support of the actual schools.

"If they are talking about that it's acceptable to put condos in [Stewart], really, they're talking about the destruction of a community, not the preservation of a community," Zaccor said. "It fits right in with what we were suspicious might be a motive behind the closing of Stewart."

Stewart, 4225 N. Kenmore Ave., sits in the Wilson Yard tax increment finance district, across the street from an affordable housing development and Target store that were built in 2010. Just northwest of the school, the Wilson Red Line Station is slated for a $203 million makeover.

Organizers at an April protest outside Stewart said the proposed closing of the school is a "land grab," that will be followed by a pricey development if the CPS plan is approved.

"I feel our school is being targeted for closure due to its prime real estate location," wrote one Stewart teacher who requested that her name be withheld.

She said it seems like the city is "looking at this as a prime opportunity to snatch up this property," despite officials saying closings of "underutilized" schools is an effort to "right-size" the school district and better allocate resources. Both CPS calculations for space use and estimates of money saved have also come under fire from critics.

Ald. James Cappleman (46th) said CPS has promised Stewart won't return as a charter. But he has not spoken out in opposition to its closing. Should the school close, its future is still murky.

CPS officials have said that efforts to sell properties left vacant by closings might include repurposings and demolitions. But critics, including the Chicago Teachers Union, doubt the district's ability to sell the properties and worry about buildings becoming vacant eyesores similar to what has happened to other cities, including Detroit, after massive school closings.

Preservation Chicago's stance that anything goes, as long as buildings are maintained, promotes gentrification, Zaccor said.

"That point of view of preservation will actually lead to it becoming condos or luxury high rent housing," Zaccor said. "That's what the powers that be are doing in Uptown right now. That's their interest."

Fine emphasized that if Stewart is to be saved, "We would rather see it saved as a community asset," and added that community centers, assisted living for the elderly, or even another "learning institution," of some sort would be welcome.

Stewart was one of at least 40 schools designed during Dwight Perkins' five-year stint as the Board of Education's chief architect, which began in 1905. The American Institute of Architects describe Stewart in its 2003 architecture guide to Chicago as an "imposing brick and limestone structure."

"Features in common with Perkins' other schools include the robust consoles serving as keystones atop the large arched windows of the central block and, on the end pavilions, vertical pairs of windows with only the lower of the two pedimented," the guide said.

Actor Harrison Ford is one of Stewart's notable alumni, according to its CPS website.

Carl Schurz High School has been described as Perkins' masterpiece. Lyman Trumbull Elementary School in Andersonville is another Perkins design. That school also faces closure under the CPS plan.

Perkins' stint as CPS' chief architect ended after the board found him guilty of insubordination.

He died in 1941 and is buried in Uptown's Graceland Cemetery.