Is the Chicago Vocational HS heading to the National Register of Historic Places?

We were most concerned about Chicago Vocational, the architecturally significant but underutilized Art Deco/Art Moderne high school in the city’s Avalon Park neighborhood.

Built in 1941 for 4,000 students, only about 800 students currently attend the school at 2100 E. 87th Street.

The second-largest public school building in the city — only Lane Tech is taller — Chicago Vocational is so underutilized that authorities closed a nearly one-block wing along Anthony Avenue there. a few years.

There was even talk a few years ago of the destruction of the Anthony wing, which raised concerns among former students of the school about the future of the building.

But those fears might be somewhat allayed now. That’s because the Illinois Historic Places Advisory Board voted last month to recommend the National Park Service list the 81-year-old school on the National Register of Historic Places.

“It’s simply one of a kind and so the school well deserves to take its place among other notable and honored structures,” said Michael L. Mims, who graduated from the school in 1978 – he specializing in architectural design – leading the National Register nomination effort.

This is welcome news that we hope will lead to an all-out effort to preserve the historic school – and rebuild its curriculum as well.

“Exemplary and architecturally distinct”

Now called Chicago Vocational Career Academy, but better known by its original name, Chicago Vocational High School, CVS sits on a 22-acre campus west of the Chicago Skyway.

At its height in the 20th century, the school provided a first-class professional education in the then largely industrial Southeast.

But rather than confining students to a rudimentary, factory-like school building, Chicago Board of Education architect John C. Christensen designed an elegant building rich in architectural detail.

The students nicknamed it “the Palace”.

“CVS was once hailed as the largest, most modern, and best-equipped trade school in the United States,” said Mims, who co-wrote the National Register nomination papers with assistant professor Ruby Oram. in the Department of History at Texas State University. .

“Too few buildings on our national register represent the history of ordinary people or the interests of local communities,” Oram told us.

The research of Mims and Oram reveals fascinating details about CVS and its history.

For example, the building was constructed with 800,000 square feet of floor space and over a mile of hallways providing access to 165 classrooms, stores and laboratories.

A sunken dining room can accommodate 2,000 people.

The United States Navy took over the building when it opened in 1941 and used it as a training school for naval aviation specialists until 1945.

As a public school, CVS has become the alma mater of a host of luminaries ranging from Chicago Bears great Dick Butkus to comedian Bernie Mac, after whom the building’s auditorium is named, and the artist Kevin “WAK” Williams.

“CVS is an exemplary building and architecturally distinct from any other public school in Chicago,” Oram said. “But CVS is more than another Art Deco monument. CVS is a monument to social history that represents the experiences of students, teachers and families in the area.”

An SOS for CVS

The Illinois Historic Places Advisory Board met June 24 to approve the National Park Service’s recommendation to place CVS on the National Register.

The council also gave the nod to the Cornelia, a Beaux-Arts residential tower at 3500 N. Lake Shore Drive; and the James E. Plew Building, located at 2635-2645 S. Wabash Ave. in the Motor Row Historic District.

The effort will likely win the support of the city’s Commission on Chicago Landmarks today. The Commissions Program Committee voted last month in favor of the recommendations.

But the good work of Mims and Oram shows that the city must also deal with granting CVS local landmark status.

A city landmark designation would help protect the building from demolition or unsympathetic alterations.

And since Planning Commissioner Maurice Cox is now looking to reactivate kitchens, gymnasiums and other parts of closed schools – a great idea, we said last month – why not direct the same energy towards unused parts of a historical CVS?

Together, a historic city designation and the National Register could provide a solid foundation for reinvesting in CVS and making it the academic asset it once was – and needs to be again.

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