The old School Building near Chicago closed in 1966


Oak Lawn School, Oak Lawn Illinois
Date added: February 21, 2024 Categories: Illinois School
Historic photo (1923)

The Oak Lawn School is currently known as Cook School for the street it is located on. Combining Richardsonian Romanesque and Prairie School features, it is a distinctive example of school architecture, the building is handsomely designed and carefully executed example of residential-scale school building construction. There is no existing school structure even slightly resembling it in either the adjacent suburbs of Evergreen Park, Burbank, Chicago Ridge, and Worth or the Chicago wards bordering on Oak Lawn; all are stylistically different, and all but one in these areas are newer and larger.

Oak Lawn School, which was built in three sections; in 1906, 1915 and 1925; is the oldest remaining public school building in Oak Lawn. The one-room schoolhouses that preceded it are gone. Located across from the train station in Oak Lawn's town center, this substantial-looking masonry structure was the first school in the community that was not a log or frame one-room schoolhouse. Bearing the name "Oak Lawn School," it was clearly intended to be the town school. Although planned for expansion, the 1906 structure contained two classrooms housing grades 1-8. It stood one story, combining a characteristically Richardsonian Romanesque rough-faced limestone base and low-sprung arched entry with a broad hipped roof with deep overhangs, a Prairie School characteristic. The two additions, a second story, in 1915, and a section across the rear, in 1925, so closely resemble the 1906 design in scale, materials, and fenestration, that they complement the original structure. The same is true on the interior, where the building's design reflects an expanding school population and a slightly more modest budget. Craftsmanship was never compromised and changes in design generally involved simplification.

Oak Lawn School, which was built in three sections; in 1906, 1915 and 1925; is the oldest remaining public school building in Oak Lawn. The one-room schoolhouses that preceded it are gone. Located across from the train station in Oak Lawn's town center, this substantial-looking masonry structure was the first school in the community that was not a log or frame one-room schoolhouse. Bearing the name "Oak Lawn School," it was clearly intended to be the town school. Although planned for expansion, the 1906 structure contained two classrooms housing grades 1-8. It stood one story, combining a characteristically Richardsonian Romanesque rough-faced limestone base and low-sprung arched entry with a broad hipped roof with deep overhangs, a Prairie School characteristic. The two additions, a second story, in 1915, and a section across the rear, in 1925, so closely resemble the 1906 design in scale, materials, and fenestration, that they complement the original structure. The same is true on the interior, where the building's design reflects an expanding school population and a slightly more modest budget. Craftsmanship was never compromised and changes in design generally involved simplification.

Stylistically, Oak Lawn School; despite its late 1906 date and Prairie School roof line, horizontality, and geometric crispness; clearly borrows elements from the Romanesque designs of Henry Hobson Richardson. Interestingly, Richardsonian Romanesque is a style often associated with educational buildings. Richardson designed Sever Hall at Harvard University in 1878 and the Harvard Law School Building in 1881. Many campuses, including the University of Illinois and the University of Minnesota, contain several Richardsonian Romanesque buildings that reflect his strong design influence. His buildings typically have horizontal silhouettes, round arches framing door openings and are faced in rough textured stone. They convey a sense of permanence because of their massiveness. Although the style can be found in the design of primary and secondary school buildings, the schools examined in the areas adjacent to Oak Lawn are not stylistically similar to Oak Lawn School, either as it looked in 1906 or as it looks with its 1915 and 1925 additions. All are Neo-classical or Art Deco and none have a residential scale.

The history of public education in Oak Lawn dates back to 1860, when a one-room log school house was erected on what is today the northeast corner of 55th Court and 95th Street, approximately 1/2 mile west of where Oak Lawn School was to be built. At that time the area was a small settlement known as "Black Oaks Grove" because of the large number of black oak trees growing there. Worth Township, which contained Black Oaks Grove, had been formed in 1849, and the settlement was well enough known to be listed in legal notices in 1856. A permanent town appeared to be growing, and life in Black Oaks Grove became more institutionalized with the school's construction. Known in Township records as Charles Simpson's Schoolhouse and built on land that was part of this early settler's homestead, the school in its early years was said to have an enrollment of 10 to 12. The first teacher, aged 23, taught students of all ages in a single room.

Following the Civil War, the town enjoyed a period of steady growth due to an influx of German immigrants. Even so, the settlement's second school, built in 1878, was hardly more sophisticated than its first. This second one-room schoolhouse was located at what is today the northwest corner of 95th Street and Cicero Avenue, 1/2 mile east of the future location of Oak Lawn School. It was built on. 1/2 acre of land purchased from Joachim and Caroline Lange for $150 in the German part of town. It has been described as a one-room frame structure with two entrances and a large pot-bellied stove. The normal course of events for many local German families during this period was to end public school education at the 8th-grade level. There was no high school. Rather, schooling was closely tied in with religious training, and children would attend the "German School" until confirmation requirements had been met. Classes were conducted in German with bible study as well as the other subjects being taught; the pastor of the church served as the teacher.

At the same time this second small school was built, the town was aggressively being developed. Development started in earnest with the coming of the railroad. In 1871, Col. Ralph Plumb formed a railway company that, by 1879, merged with the Wabash Railway Company. In November of 1879, Plumb signed an agreement with members of the Simpson and Chamberlin families, some of the settlement's earliest settlers. For $650 in cash and 15 acres he was to route the Wabash through Black Oaks and build a station. Local residents agreed to subdivide and establish a town, giving Plumb half the lots. The station was completed in 1881; the new line was ready for service and subdivision of the town began in 1882, coincidental with the arrival of the first passenger train. For the first time, the settlement became known as Oak Lawn.

When the town was platted, the name was changed; it was duly recorded with the Recorder of Deeds of Cook County as the Village of Oak Lawn. It didn't take long for the town to be recognized. Oak Lawn was mentioned two years later by A. T. Andreas in his History of Cook County as "a pleasant place, though without a church or store."

Subdivision continued. In. the nineties, a second subdivider became prominent. Erasmus G. Minnick bought land from the Simpson family, built an elegant house for himself in 1891 and dug out Oak Lawn Lake, a lovely body of water filled from underground springs. Using his house as a showcase, Minnick set out to attract families to Lake Lawn. Some bought property and some came from Chicago by railroad to spend the day. Unfortunately, his business failed and the company went under in the 1894 depression. A few cottages from the period remain in various stages of preservation. Most were demolished years ago. The lake has been partially filled in. Minnick's house and Oak Lawn School are the only buildings in the village from the pre-World War I development period that clearly reflect the early history of the community.

The third important early developer of Oak Lawn was the Campbell Development Company, which became interested in the village in 1902. It was this Chicago company that owned the property the school district bought lots from for the construction of Oak Lawn School.

Reorganization of the school system led to the acquisition of land for Oak Lawn School and the construction of the new building, a brick structure considered more suitable for the modern demands of education. In 1902, township organization of the schools in Oak Lawn was replaced by a county-wide system, which caused Worth District 4 to become Cook County School District 123. After the adoption of the county-wide school plan, the board ordered a new and modern school to be built. The school was to be financed by a bond which was to be paid off by 1912.

The site selected for Oak Lawn School was a prominent one, lots 28-35 in Minnick's Subdivision, just a few blocks from Minnick's house. It was to be located across from the train station, and in June 1905, Charles P. Campbell was paid $1500 for it. The Campbell Development Company served as the agency for buying and selling most of the property in the village, and they were pleased to see the school built where train passengers to Oak Lawn would first see it. The school was mentioned in company literature to attract residents to Oak Lawn, until the company folded in 1913.

Construction of Oak Lawn School began in 1905. Minutes indicate that G. M. Ashley was paid $137 for plans for a new building. Bids were let, and A. Rankin was awarded the contract, for $5480. Although simply designed, the building was handsome, with tin ceilings, maple floors, and beautiful millwork. With construction completed, the first school year was 1906-1907. Joseph Covington and his wife were hired as teachers. In the two-room school building she was to teach grades 1-4; he was to serve as principal-teacher and teach grades 5-8.

Oak Lawn, into the early 1900's was a farm community, but aspiring for a better educational system. In a 1976 oral history, a resident Pauline Prange Schultz spoke of the years before 1900: "We were all farmers. The property on the south side of 95th Street from Cook Avenue was all farms." Nevertheless, the town was growing and realizing the need for utilities and better law enforcement, the village became incorporated in 1909 with boundaries extending from 87th Street to 99th Street and 48th Avenue (Cicero) to 56th Avenue (Central). Oak Lawn School was practically in the center of the newly-incorporated area. The population in 1910 was 289. Although the community was still a tiny village, schooling was being systematized. The 1912 yearbook of the Oak Lawn Athletic Association describes the village school (Oak Lawn School) as having 8 grades and a curriculum resembling closely that of the Chicago Public Schools.

By 1914, the size of the school proved inadequate and a second story, with the principal's office in the front at the stair landing and two more schoolrooms, was added. Although the building was expanded, fenestration and detailing was matched. The same salt-glazed ceramic brick from Athens, Ohio, was used, and it is difficult to see the line between old and new. A gracefully curved front gable was added at the roofline, marking the entrance. On the interior the tin ceilings have almost identical patterns; there is a chair rail instead of wainscoting, but the quality of craftsmanship is equal to that of the original one-story building. In fact, when the school was first planned, it was designed with expansion in mind. It was noted in the first annual report of Oak Lawn District #4, Worth Township, that Oak Lawn School was to have two rooms, two teachers teaching 60 pupils, and was to be a brick building with a hall, basement, steam heat, cost about $7000, and have provisions for a second story.

Oak Lawn continued to grow in the 1920's; the 1920 population was 487. By 1923, the school population was up to 215, and the school could not adequately handle the number of students. On September 30th, 1923, a special meeting was held to complain about the basement rooms. The solution was a second addition, and in 1925, a two-story rear addition was built, again closely matching the original in fenestration and materials. The school building was still a source of community pride and used as a selling point for marketing building sites in Oak Lawn.

Charles V. McErlean, a Chicago realtor illustrated the school in its promotional piece, stating: "There are seven churches, one of each prominent denomination and a fine, modern school in fast-growing Oak Lawn, convenient to all parts of the suburb."

Although a nearby smaller school district in Oak Lawn built a brick two-room school in 1923, the building had no formal name until the 1940's and was first absorbed in additions, then demolished in 1975. Oak Lawn School was the educational institution associated with the village. There was not even a public high school until 1927; until then any student who wished further education had to take the train and attend high school in Chicago.

No new school construction took place until 1939, when Covington School (named for the first school teachers at Oak Lawn School) opened, paid for from a $45,848 WPA loan, and using WPA labor. The 1930 census showed Oak Lawn with a population of 2,045; a new school building was badly needed, but the Depression had brought everything to a standstill. When Covington was built, the name of Oak Lawn School was changed to Cook Avenue School. Cook housed the first five grades, and Covington accommodated the upper grades.

Little growth occurred until after World War II, when the town's population burgeoned. In 1948, the population was 8,751; in 1953, 13,332; in 1960, 27,451. Between 1952 and 1967, eight schools were built. The population of Oak Lawn stands today at over 60,000. There is practically nothing left of the original pre-World War I historic fabric: a handful of residences, a few much-altered commercial buildings, and Oak Lawn School.

Oak Lawn School served the community as a school until 1966, when the village purchased it. Since then, it has, over the years, housed the Family Service Council, the Oak Lawn Hockey League, Fire and Civil Service offices, the PLOWS Council on Aging and courtrooms. These agencies no longer occupy the building, but the Oak Lawn Chamber of Commerce has occupied space since 1975, the Oak Lawn Historical Society since 1977.

Building Description

The Oak Lawn School, 9526 South Cook Avenue, Cook County, Illinois is located on the west side of South Cook Avenue, just south of 95th Street, one of the town's major arteries. Presently surrounded by parking lots, the structure stands a half block north of the site of the village's original train station. Between 1906, when the school was constructed, and 1966, when the village purchased the building, the school was separated from the train station by a pleasantly landscaped park. Three blocks to the west, at the northwest intersection of 54th Avenue and 96th Street, stands the 1891 home of developer Erasmus G. Minnick, a handful of generally remodeled late 19th century cottages and the site of Oak Lawn Lake, presently a tree-shaded park. To the north of Oak Lawn School, on 95th Street, there are remnants of considerably altered 19th century and early 20th century commercial buildings. This area, historically, was the village center and remains so today; the Oak Lawn Public Library, the Police and Fire Building and the Village Hall are all located just north of 95th Street on South Cook Avenue, less than a block from Oak Lawn School.

The Oak Lawn School building stands two stories over a raised basement, topped by a shallow hip roof with a deep overhang supported by exposed wood rafters. Built in three phases, 1906, 1915, and 1925, the entire rectangular building, which measures on South Cook Avenue 79'5" x 60'10", is constructed of a dark red salt-glazed ceramic brick, from Athens, Ohio, resting on a wide band of textured cast concrete and a Richardsonian Romanesque flared base of rough-faced Lemont limestone. There are four rectangular brick chimneys flanking the ridge of the roof and three other chimneys. The building's windows are all wood frame double hung. The majority of the windows and all of them on the front facade have their original mullions and are 12/1 on the 1906 and 1915 sections and 9/1 on the 1925 section. Sills are of concrete. The ground floor windows are boarded up, but retain their four-pane configurations beneath the covering. The original multi-pane window configuration surrounding new metal doors exists beneath vertical wood siding. Aside from the easily reversible alterations mentioned, the only other exterior changes involve the conversion of some windows into fire entrances and the addition of fire escapes on the secondary facades. The openings and ornamental trim on the primary facade are intact. The overall exterior massing and use of materials on the entire building has also not been altered.

On the interior, all public hallways, except an easily removable second-floor firewall, are intact. Some of the schoolrooms have had temporary 3/4 partitioning added, but the spaces clearly look like schoolrooms, with original room shapes, blackboards, picture rails, and wood cabinetry. Ornamental tin ceilings are everywhere. Overall, the entire building has excellent integrity.

Originally constructed in 1906 to contain two schoolrooms, the Oak Lawn School stood one story, giving the building a long low profile, Prairie School in appearance. In 1915, as the school population grew, a second story, containing two more classrooms and a principal's office, was added. In 1925, the size of the school was doubled when a two-story addition containing six classrooms was attached at the rear. The brick wall separating the 1925 section from the earlier ones is still clearly seen in bathrooms.

The east, front facade looks very much as it did in 1915. It is symmetrical with five bays of 12/1 windows flanking a projecting center section that is Athens brick over a textured concrete band and flared Lemont limestone base like the rest of the building. The entrance to the building is in the center of this central projecting bay. It is surrounded by a low sprung arch, a typical Richardsonian feature. The arch is formed by a wide textured concrete band that continues the band surrounding the building and is topped by a keystone and a small stone pedestal. Windows rattle behind vertical wood siding surrounding the double aluminum doors, so it is apparent that the original multi-pane windows are intact. Over the door, at the landing level, is a triple window to light the principal's office. It has a broad 20/1 center window flanked by two narrower 12/1 side windows. The entire triple window has a textured concrete sill and flat concrete shoulder lintel with curved ornamental trim in the center. Just over the window is a rectangular stone panel with OAK-LAWN cut in the stone. Topping the entire central bay is a symmetrical parapet with coping set in a graceful curved pattern.

The south facade is six bays wide. Three of the four bays of the 1906 and 1915 sections have double-hung windows, some 12/1.

The narrower doors match in size adjacent windows in the 1925 addition. The 1925 section of the building has two bays identical on each floor, one comprised of a band of five 9/1 windows, the second containing a single double hung window. A string course of two narrow brick bands separates the first and second floors and surrounds the secondary facades of the entire building.

The west rear facade is three bays wide on each floor, with a fire door and fire escape just south of the bays. A narrow double hung window flanks a band of five 9/1 windows on each floor. Ten of the fourteen double hung windows have their original 9/1 mullion configurations.

The north side facade is six bays wide. The 1906 and 1915 section has three bays of double hung windows; two on the first floor and two on the second have their 12/1 mullion configurations. The fourth has been converted into a fire door on both floors. The 1925 section consists of a band of five double hung windows and a fire door on the second floor and a band of four double hung windows, a fire door and a single double hung window on the first. There are two fire escapes.

On the interior, the front stairhall is approached through double doors opening into a small vestibule at ground level. A second set of double doors (currently stored in the basement) surrounded by large rectangular glass panels and a glass transom opens into the stair landing. Slatted wood sheathes the walls next to the entry. There is a closet on each side. A single broad staircase leads to the large first-floor hall. It splits into two stairs to the landing and continues up in a single staircase to the second floor. A simple oak balustrade, with rectangular paneling on the newel posts, lines the staircase. It is in excellent condition. Floors are all maple, although some have been tiled over. Pressed tin ceilings contain three complementary patterns. The 1906 and 1915 patterns are almost identical, variations of a starburst design. The 1925 ceilings combine the starburst with a circular pattern. The walls are plaster with wood trim. In the 1906 section there is narrow wood-panelled wainscoting. In the other sections of the building there are wood chair rails. Doors are wood paneled. Many have their original Florentine glass lights and transoms. The schoolrooms have oak built-in cabinetry, many with notched supports and all display finely detailed wood craftsmanship. The moldings are somewhat simpler in the newer sections of the building. All of the classrooms have blackboards, and some rooms have picture rails. Most of the basement houses the heating system and storage. There were two classrooms.

Oak Lawn School, Oak Lawn Illinois East facade window detailed (1990)
East facade window detailed (1990)

Oak Lawn School, Oak Lawn Illinois Northeast corner (1990)
Northeast corner (1990)

Oak Lawn School, Oak Lawn Illinois East facade (1990)
East facade (1990)

Oak Lawn School, Oak Lawn Illinois Plaque on front of building (1990)
Plaque on front of building (1990)

Oak Lawn School, Oak Lawn Illinois North facade (1990)
North facade (1990)

Oak Lawn School, Oak Lawn Illinois Front vestibule (1990)
Front vestibule (1990)

Oak Lawn School, Oak Lawn Illinois Staircase looking toward front door (1990)
Staircase looking toward front door (1990)

Oak Lawn School, Oak Lawn Illinois Newel post (1990)
Newel post (1990)

Oak Lawn School, Oak Lawn Illinois Classroom (1990)
Classroom (1990)

Oak Lawn School, Oak Lawn Illinois Historic photo (1923)
Historic photo (1923)

Oak Lawn School, Oak Lawn Illinois Second floor southeast classroom (1990)
Second floor southeast classroom (1990)

Oak Lawn School, Oak Lawn Illinois Door to Principal's office (1990)
Door to Principal's office (1990)

Oak Lawn School, Oak Lawn Illinois North stair to second floor (1990)
North stair to second floor (1990)

Oak Lawn School, Oak Lawn Illinois Detail of cabinet (1990)
Detail of cabinet (1990)

Oak Lawn School, Oak Lawn Illinois Detail of notched cabinet shelving (1990)
Detail of notched cabinet shelving (1990)

Oak Lawn School, Oak Lawn Illinois Tin ceiling in 1906 portion of building (1990)
Tin ceiling in 1906 portion of building (1990)

Oak Lawn School, Oak Lawn Illinois Classroom in northeast corner of building (1990)
Classroom in northeast corner of building (1990)

Oak Lawn School, Oak Lawn Illinois Detail of maple floor (1990)
Detail of maple floor (1990)

Oak Lawn School, Oak Lawn Illinois Basement (1990)
Basement (1990)

Oak Lawn School, Oak Lawn Illinois Tin ceiling in 1925 addition (1990)
Tin ceiling in 1925 addition (1990)