New Trier’s Centennial Odyssey

Gazette Article by: Robyn DeKoven Grossberg
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 2000

The First 50 Years: New Trier’s Centennial Odyssey

On February 4, 1901, 76 boys and girls braved the blustery cold and snowdrifts to make their way towards the new brick school building on Winnetka Avenue. As seven teachers greeted the eager students, the wheels of history were set in motion of arguably the nation’s finest high school.

Had Wilmette voted differently in three 1890s referenda to annex itself to Evanston, Wilmette’s high school students would be cheering the Wildkits of Evanston Township High School and New Trier, as we know it, would not exist. Fortunately, due to the foresight of Wilmette and other New Trier Township civic leaders, including Winnetka resident and Chicago lawyer, Merritt Starr, voters approved the organization of New Trier High School on April 4, 1899, by a vote of 651 to 369. At the time, the township had a population of about 5,000 and Starr was subsequently elected the first president of the New Trier Board of Education.

On August 5, 1899, voters approved a $60,000 bond referendum to purchase six acres of land for a high school building. Of the several prominent Chicago architects asked to submit drawings, Norman S. Patten’s plan was selected and construction began soon after in the middle of the swampy woodland.

The original New Trier curriculum included English, French, German, Latin, Greek, mathematics, history, science and free-hand drawing. Courses in woodworking and mechanical drawing were soon added.

Athletics played a major role at New Trier from the beginning. Boys and girls played basketball, mixed tennis doubles and baseball on the unfinished second floor. Football was tried and dropped in 1908. It was reinstated under the leadership of faculty member E. L. (Duke) Childs in 1913, the same year that the Suburban League was formed. It wouldn’t be until 1974 that girls competed interscholastically, following long overdue federal legislation.

For the first few years, extracurricular activities were kept to a minimum as the boys had to go home after school “to milk the cows” and girls “to clean the kerosene lamps.” New Trier remained open regardless of weather conditions and students became known as “snowbirds.”

The student count grew rapidly as the commuter population continued to expand. In 1921, the board was under the leadership of Louis Gillson and had purchased a total of 21 more acres, bringing the total amount of school acreage to 27. Gillson realized the added value of athletic endeavors to complement the academic curriculum and New Trier became one of the first high schools in the country to build an indoor swimming pool.

In 1923, Frederick Clerk became superintendent and completely reorganized the school administration in response to the exploding growth to 1,200 students. With remarkable insight, Clerk formed the adviser system that remains a cornerstone for New Trier students today. Clerk felt that these highly personalized adviseries would serve to retain the advantages of a small school and still allow students to profit from the abundant opportunities of a large school.

With the increase in student population, it soon became evident that the existing facilities were inadequate. A $500,000 bond issue was approved in 1922 and the contract awarded was used to build a new powerhouse to heat the school, along with a new gymnasium and athletic fields. In 1928, School Board President Leslie F. Gates died suddenly and the new gym was named in memory of his hard work to bring the plans to fruition.

Matthew P. Gaffney assumed the role of Superintendent in 1931 and guided New Trier through the difficult days of the Great Depression and World War II. During that time, the Works Progress Administration came to New Trier’s aid to help expand and renovate the campus. Also during Superintendent Gaffney’s tenure, Northfield and a small portion of Glenview became part of the New Trier Township High School District.

Following World War II, New Trier Superintendent Matthew Gaffney correctly anticipated significant increases in the student population. At that time, the facility could handle about 2,500 students, but a 1950 study estimated growth up to 3,500 students in the next 25 years. Even that number woefully underestimated the impact of the generation known as the Baby Boomers.

On December 12, 1953, the township voters approved a $5,875,000 bond issue that would allow the demolition of the old main building and auditorium, the construction of larger facilities and the modernization of the heating and lighting systems. Designed by the architectural firm of Furst, Maher and McGraw, the replacement buildings were built and dedicated on September 8, 1957.

Almost as soon as the structure was completed, it became apparent that it would be inadequate. The student population had grown in three short years from 3,125 in 1957 to 3,902 in 1960. A referendum to purchase land adjacent to the school, requiring the demolition of 29 homes, was resoundingly defeated. The school board realized that it would have to explore other options.

After much consideration, the board decided that a second four-year school with a capacity of 2,500 students would be the most viable solution. It was announced that an undeveloped 45-acre site had been chosen, between Happ and Frontage Roads in Northfield. Considerable controversy ensued and the $975,000 bond issue to fund the new project was defeated.

The board then established a Citizens Committee to review all the issues. Support grew for the second school and on June 9, 1962, the referendum passed by a two-to-one margin. The student population had now soared to 4,473 (on its way to peaking at 4,912 in 1964-65, the last year at a single campus) and mobile classrooms were being used to handle the overflow. The architecture firm of Perkins and Will moved quickly to have the school ready by the fall of 1965 and New Trier now boasted the New Trier East “Indians” and the New Trier West “Cowboys.”

By the late 1970s, enrollment had dropped significantly. Several grade schools in the township were closed. In 1981, New Trier West was converted to a freshman only campus and by 1985 all students were once again housed on the East campus. New Trier athletes became known as “Trevians” and the teams combined the blue and gray from West and green and gray from East as the three new official school colors.

In an advisory referendum in 1987, the electorate voted to retain the west campus, a prescient move as the cycle would soon begin again with the babies of the Baby Boom generation. On November 11, 1998, voters went to the polls one more time to approve an $11 million bond issue to pay for a portion of the renovation cost of the Northfield campus in anticipation of reopening the school in August, 2001, as a freshman only campus.

While the history of New Trier resonates with constant change, the school is a living tribute to the supportive community, active school board and especially the dedicated staff who have kept New Trier at the crest of educational excellence and innovation. Students have not only received the finest secondary education available in this country, but they have also been provided with ever-increasing and seemingly boundless opportunities for interactive co-curricular activities and social service.

Superintendent Henry Bangser, a former New Trier social studies teacher, advisor and coach, offered the following thoughts about New Trier’s history and future: “When I came to New Trier, many of my colleagues had been part of the fabric of this unique high school district since the end of World War II. Now, when I reflect on the younger staff we have employed in recent years, I can easily project their careers well into the third decade of the twenty-first century. The community, parents and, most importantly, the students have been and will be the beneficiaries of the talents of these exceptional professionals. In turn, the staff members realize how fortunate they are to be in an environment where the commitment to excellence is infused in the daily life of the school. New Trier has been great since its inception and it will be great long after even our youngest staff members retire. This, I believe, is a certainty.”

A series of articles on the history of New Trier by David Leach, former New Trier student and teacher, provided much of the factual information in this story.

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