Winnetka's famed elementary school is on claass HAUS today.
Crow Island School changed education design forever. Here are the ten things you need to know about the progressive landmark.
1. Initiated by educator, Carleton W. Washburne.
In 1938, Superintendent of Winnetka (IL) Public Schools, Carleton Washburne, commissioned an elementary school that would revolutionize both architecture and education. Washburne, a leader of the progressive philosophy, sought a new building that would embody the tenets of experiential, child-centric learning. A collaborative effort between the influential superintendent and a talented group of architects (see below), the design of Crow Island School became an icon, a groundbreaking model of how an elementary school could look and function in modern America.
2. Designed by a distinguished team of architects.
Eager to build a model progressive school (his "dream school"), Washburne paired the young, energetic firm Perkins, Wheeler and Will with the more experienced Eliel and Eero Saarinen. While much of the school's aesthetic recalls the warm modernist language of the Saarinens' previous projects, the younger firm completed most of the plan's preliminary legwork, spending valuable time observing classes and speaking with teachers and students.
3. Considered America's first modernist school.
Modern in form and function, Crow Island School must have appeared radical at its completion in 1940, a streamlined design married to an open, flexible plan. Defined on the exterior by asymmetry, horizontal lines, yellow brick laid in running bond, and large windows, the building's interior space broke the institutional box with its adaptable, child-focused plan. Incorporating functionalism and creative planning, the one-story school with a pinwheel-like footprint suited the spatial needs of young children, replacing the usual classical stylistic troupes with a modern vocabulary.
4. The long and low plan is intimately connected with the landscape.
Utilizing low scale, common materials, and a connection to the outdoors, the modern structure redefined how a primary school looked and functioned. Asymmetrical in plan, the school is composed of four separate classroom wings (grouped by age) organized around a central core of common rooms (including the auditorium, library, and gymnasium). Bordered by Crow Island Woods and situated within a park-like setting, the design provides plenty of opportunities for children to explore the surrounding landscape. Students can view adjacent green space through the large classroom windows and can easily gain access to outdoor courtyards and playgrounds whenever necessary.
5. Everything is child-centric.
Door handles, furniture, and whimsical finishes like ceramic animal tiles and light blue front doors were all developed with the child in mind. Inspired by the progressive philosophy of John Dewey, the collaborative school design nurtured the individual, encouraging creativity and independent thinking.
6. Each classroom functions like a self-sufficient village.
In contrast to the traditional classroom that reinforced the authority of the teacher, each Crow Island class was planned in a distinctive L-shape, providing flexible seating arrangements and instructional space. Radical even by today's standards, each individual classroom acted as a self-contained unit. Rooms opened up to landscaped courtyards and playgrounds, while in-class bathrooms and sinks allowed for further independence and convenience.
7. In true Bauhaus fashion, the school was a total work of art (thanks to the Saarinens).
Though the final form of Crow Island School was a joint effort, many of the building's most distinctive details can be attributed to members of the Saarinen family. On the exterior, the massive chimney marks the building's entrance and is the major decorative element of an otherwise simple facade, its strong verticality evoking much of Eliel and Eero Saarinen's previous work (see their Koebel House, completed around the same time). Having recently worked on Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo, the Saarinens designed the school's two-story auditorium space using many of the same devices. Eero even created the school's furniture, including molded plywood chairs that preceded his Organic Chair submitted with Charles Eames to the Museum of Modern Art in 1941. Loja Saarinen developed the school's textiles, while Lilian Swann (Eero's fiancée at the time) designed the ceramic animals.
8. A landmark of education design.
There's no overstating this building's value to architecture and education. An icon of progressive school design, the building was well timed and well published, its completion corresponding to the surging demand for new school buildings (thanks to the baby boomers). Its influence reached far and wide, shaping a generation of American schools (though imitators primarily copied the building's superficial elements like its single story, horizontal lines, brick facade, and large windows). Following the design's success, Perkins, Wheeler and Will became Perkins + Will, a firm that would go on to design hundreds of schools in the Modern style.
9. Nominated as a National Historic Landmark in 1989.
Want more information? You can read the nomination here.
10. Celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2015.
More than 75 years old, the most famous progressive school in America still functions as a primary school, its original pine pin-up walls exhibiting years of use but showing no signs of decay.
Image at top:
By Zol87 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/zol87/6139570032/)
[CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
This architectural historian cannot stop thinking about buildings, food, and that vintage rug she found online.