Gazette Article by: William Hinchliff
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 1998
North Shore Country Day School was founded in 1919 by a group of Winnetka families, including the Boals, Wallings, Clarks, and Mordocks. Intrigued with a school concept that had recently sprung up in the East, they wanted to create such a school in Winnetka. It would offer some of the advantages of a boarding school, such as small size and a location outside the city, without the disadvantage of having to send children away from home. Unlike boarding institutions, the country day school would be co-educational and include kindergarten through 12th grades on one campus.
The founders hired dynamic, young, Chicago educator, Perry Dunlap Smith, as the school’s first headmaster.
Heavily influenced by the progressive education movement, Smith and the founding trustees had strong convictions about the kind of school they wanted. They visualized a true community where cooperation was more important than competition and the entire student body shared experiences.
Smith attacked this challenge with gusto. He administered, taught, directed dramatic productions, led the school in song, coached football, and even temporarily played fullback on the second team.
The founders solved two critical problems—where to locate the new school and how to find enough students to get it started—by leasing the Girton School for Girls. Located on the “hill” at Green Bay Road near Elder Lane, this impressive site had been one of Winnetka’s grandest estates, built in 1874 for the Garland family and taken over by Girton in 1900. Girton students were absorbed into the new school, and by 1921 the success of North Shore Country Day School led the trustees to purchase the land and buildings. In 1927 the thriving school was enlarged when the village agreed to close Diller Street, which ran along the north edge of the school’s property. In exchange, the school trustees gave to Winnetka a small piece of property to the east, which it needed for the widening of Green Bay Road. The school then purchased the farmland north to Willow Road.
Currently, the institution occupies basically the same campus, though early students would hardly recognize it. Original structures were demolished or moved, and many new ones constructed, especially in the 1920s and between 1955-65.
The architect who had the greatest impact on the campus was Winnetkan Edwin H. Clark. He planned the campus in the early 1920s and designed four of the school’s major buildings. Ironically, the most architecturally distinctive of these, the modernist Lower School of 1939, is the least characteristic of Clark’s predominantly revivalist work.
Today the school remains remarkably faithful to Perry Dunlap Smith’s vision and has accommodated the inevitable changes that have occurred in curriculum, technology, and student body composition. Many distinctive traditions remain: the regular gathering of the school community at Morning Exercise (where the youngest kindergartners sit on the laps of the high school seniors); the performance of Gilbert & Sullivan operas; and the policy of not ranking students or giving academic awards. Even the Maypole Dance, a casualty of the tumultuous 1960s, was revived a few years ago.
The succinct title of the school’s recently announced capital drive best sums up North Shore Country Day School’s determination to respect its history while staying fresh and forward looking: “A Campaign for Tradition and Innovation.”