Dwight and Larry Perkins: Architects for Winnetka’s Schools

Gazette Article by: Connie Heaton Goddard
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 1999

That Crow Island School, with its slender chimney and off-center clock, draws attention from students of architecture worldwide is well-known. Of equal renown were the father and son pair of architects who were chiefly responsible for the school’s distinguished design and compatibility with its function.

“Brick, stone, wood, and steel are the materials of building. Ideas and ideals are the materials of architecture,” Lawrence Perkins once wrote, borrowing a comment made by his father Dwight. Likewise, the common brick and pine used to build Crow Island 60 years ago are not the primary elements of its distinction; it is the ideas those materials represent: simplicity, social consciousness, and form that follows function.

These ideas and many others that went into the design of Crow Island were gathered from the atmosphere of architectural and educational innovation that abounded in Chicago around the turn of the century. First given form in school buildings by Dwight Perkins while he was chief architect for the Chicago Board of Education from 1905 until 1910, they were more fully developed through the remarkable collaboration led by his son that resulted in Crow Island. Through his father’s friendships, young Larry not only had the opportunity to design a school for Winnetka’s progressive superintendent, but he was also able to bring in the famed Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen as a collaborator.

Dwight Perkins, born in 1867, lived just long enough to see Crow Island completed. His son Larry, who died in December 1997, was born 90 years earlier, an event commemorated by family friend Jane Addams in a 1908 note to his parents. Larry’s mother, Lucy Fitch Perkins, was a personage in her own right whose children’s stories appeared for many years on the best-seller lists.

Dwight is known for dozens of Chicago schools throughout the city, notably Carl Schurz High School on Milwaukee Avenue at Addison. Known to most Winnetkans are the original sections of Greeley and Hubbard Woods schools and the Gates Gymnasium at New Trier High School. Even casual observers remark on the gymnasium’s detailed brickwork, high windows, and elaborate eaves which yield a distinguished yet welcoming building.

“His buildings were safer and better places to teach than those that had gone before,” Larry Perkins said of the schools his father designed. Before Dwight Perkins, school buildings tended to have all the warmth and visual appeal of warehouses. Among his innovations were maximizing the availability of natural light, bathrooms on every floor (previously, they had been located only in basements), setting school buildings in open, landscaped spaces, and auditoriums that could double as public gathering places.

What the son said of his father’s schools is true of his own as well. Larry Perkins incorporated some of these ideas into his plan for Crow Island – an entrance that welcomed parents and students, lots of natural light in hallways and classrooms alike, bathrooms now in each classroom, and accessible areas for children’s outdoor activities.

In creating Crow Island, progressive ideas about education, codified in Carleton Washburne’s Winnetka Plan, went hand in hand with progressive ideas about architecture. So harmoniously did the building suit its purpose that it served for decades as the model for elementary schools throughout the country. School architecture became the specialty upon which Larry and his partners built the firm of Perkins & Will, still among Chicago’s leading firms and the firm responsible for Winnetka’s Washburne School as well.

Both Dwight and Larry Perkins stood high in their contributions; they achieved lasting stature by never standing too tall to help a child.

Editor’s Note: Connie Heaton Goddard attended Crow Island in the 1950s and is the author of The Great Chicago Trivia and Fact Book.

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