Originally published in the Fall 2015 Gazette
By Marcia Sutter
Excellent public schools have been a hallmark of Winnetka since 1859, when citizens financed the Village’s first public school, a decade before the Village’s official incorporation. Today, these schools are historic both educationally and architecturally thanks to the cooperation, vision, and generosity of generations of citizens, School Board members, and administrators who recognized that curriculum and school design are intertwined. They understood that school buildings had to be functional for decades and flexible enough to accommodate future needs.
This year two of the District’s elementary schools are celebrating milestone birthdays— Hubbard Woods School is 100 years old and Crow Island School is 75. Greeley School, the oldest operating school in Winnetka, turned 100 in 2013.
Hubbard Woods School was considered to be architecturally innovative when it was completed in 1915. Each of the school’s original four classrooms had a skylight and an outside entrance so that the classroom could extend outdoors, a feature that was later incorporated into Crow Island School.
Hubbard Woods was designed by Dwight Perkins of Perkins, Fellows, and Hamilton. (His son Larry would achieve renown 25 years later for Crow Island School.) Perkins was the chief architect for the Chicago Board of Education from 1905 to 1910 and also had a private practice. He designed over 40 schools and helped establish the Cook County Forest Preserve System.
Hubbard Woods School was originally known as Columbia School. The building’s name was changed to Skokie School when it was five months old, and it was subsequently renamed Hubbard Woods School when the current Skokie School opened in 1922.
The school is named in honor of Gilbert Hubbard, one of Winnetka’s founders, who owned much of the land in the northeast part of the village. Hubbard moved to Winnetka after his home was destroyed in the Chicago fire. He was the Village treasurer for five years and he helped build, and finance, the original Hubbard Woods train station.
As the population of Winnetka increased, so did the size of the school—additions to the original classrooms were built in 1918, 1923, 1925, and 1930. Many school traditions that are still beloved today including Field Day and the Halloween Ghost Walk began during those years.
Current Hubbard Woods School students kicked off a year of 100th anniversary celebrations with a party. Students will spend the year researching the decades that have passed since the school was built. A second celebration, scheduled for this spring, will feature their posters and presentations.
Crow Island School, which opened its doors to students in the fall of 1940, was conceived by then-superintendent Carleton Washburne as the physical embodiment of the child-centered principles of the Progressive Education movement.
Washburne explained it this way:
“We want it to be the most functional and beautiful school in the world. We want it to crystallize in architecture the best of our educational thought and to house appropriately the best educational practices we can evolve.”
The commission went to the young firm of Perkins, Wheeler, and Will and the more experienced Eliel and Eero Saarinen. Before any plans were drawn, architect Larry Perkins spent several months observing and talking with teachers, students, janitors, and parents so that every detail would be practical and reflect Washburne’s philosophy. It was essential that the design include flexible learning spaces that could accommodate children working individually, in small groups, or as an entire class.
The one-story structure, with L-shaped classrooms, workspaces, movable furniture, and large window walls connecting students with their outdoor surroundings, was considered extremely visionary. In 1990 it was named a National Historic Landmark in recognition of its influence on school planning and design.
The building is scaled to make students feel comfortable. This includes lower ceilings, doorknobs, and light switches, as well as bathrooms in each classroom. The child-centered design is also expressed in the auditorium, where the child-size molded plywood benches increase in size from the front to the back so that even the smallest students can have their feet firmly on the floor while seated.
The primary color doors and brightly glazed ceramic sculptures embedded in the interior and exterior brick of the building add a touch of whimsy.
Crow Island School is home to many more unique architectural features, including an original jungle gym, but none is as beloved as the Pioneer Room, a replica of a log cabin interior, located in the building’s basement.
All of the District’s third grade students study the pioneers and spend weeks preparing for their day of role-playing in this room. Alums remember this hands-on experience fondly and vividly.
Hundreds of those alums, as well as many current and former educators, returned to Crow Island School in early October for a reunion. They commemorated the school’s anniversary with architectural tours, a discussion of the school’s legacy, and a gala evening in the Crow Island Woods where they had the opportunity to visit with parents of current students.
Winnetka’s three neighborhood elementary schools have served thousands of students in the combined 277 years they have been in operation. Although the citizens who financed that first school might not be familiar with topics like engineering and computer science that children study today, they would be pleased to know that Winnetka’s schools are still considered among the best in the nation. ■