Gazette Article by: Trish Early
Appeared in the Gazette: Summer 1995
Several years ago when the Minnesota Historical Society reopened its exhibit area, a unique approach was taken to interpret its history from “A to Z.” Various objects and topics were depicted by “letters,” and visitors moved through the gallery “alphabetically.” The editorial board of the Winnetka Historical Society Gazette has decided to adopt a similar technique and has added a new feature, “WINNETKA HISTORY: A to Z.”
In the late 1860’s a group of Winnetkans met to discuss the interests of higher education in the community. As a result Academy Hall and an accompanying dormitory were built in 1870. Initially the University of Chicago agreed to lease and maintain the buildings and provide a non-sectarian school open to both sexes for a moderate tuition. However, due to delays in construction, this plan never materialized, and eventually the buildings became the public school for Winnetka.
In 1874 Everett Chamberlin, in his book, Chicago and its Suburbs, described the educational advantages of Winnetka as “first-class” and even chose a sketch of the “fine brick academy building” to illustrate the ambiance of the suburb.
As Winnetka grew, so did the importance of these buildings. Academy Hall remained the main school until 1899, when Horace Mann School opened. At that time the structure became Village Hall, with a large assembly room on the second floor for community gatherings. In 1900 it was the site of Winnetka’s historic first telephone call, made by Samuel S. Greeley.
When the present Village Hall was built in 1925, S. S. Beman “magically transformed” Academy Hall into a French Revival-styled Fire Department Headquarters, affectionately known as “Le Chateau des Pompiers” (the firefighters’ castle). It stood until 1964, when it was demolished to make way for the new Public Safety Building.In many ways, Academy Hall epitomizes those qualities we associate with Winnetka—excellence in education, architectural heritage, and community spirit. It is an appropriate subject with which to start our history survey.