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History Lesson:

Four Features Of 1920s Chicago Public Schools That Reflect Changes In Education

More public elementary schools were constructed in Chicago during the 1920s than during any other era. At the time, the design of these schools reflected new ideas about how children should be taught and what kind of spaces they needed to learn and thrive. We explore four innovative design features of 1920s elementary schools — many of which are still in use today.

Curious about the architectural styles of even more Chicago elementary schools? Check out Chicago Architecture Foundation’s guide to public school building styles over time.
A production of WBEZ's Curious City, in collaboration with the Chicago Architecture Foundation, a response to a question posed by Joyce Bogue.
picture of Julian Street:<br>The Travel Writer

Playgrounds and Fields

New schools built in the 1920s, often constructed on empty blocks, had lots of room to spread out. A new focus on the need for physical activity led architects to design schools with new places for children to run and play.

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Building Design

With an eye toward healthier learning spaces, architects designed schools that allow more natural light and air into classrooms. Modern plumbing systems and new materials made bathrooms more sanitary.

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Kindergarten Classrooms

As publicly-funded kindergarten became widespread in the early 20th century, architects designed classrooms with special features to evoke a sense of home for young learners.

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picture of Joe Schroeder:<br>The Thrill Seeker

Assembly Halls and Gyms

Assembly halls and gyms are spaces that began to be used by the community, as neighborhoods experienced rapid population growth.

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Playgrounds and Fields
Throughout the late 19th century, Chicago’s elementary schools were constructed on relatively small lots, boxed in by new urban growth. So school playgrounds were also small. You’d often find the front door to the school right off the sidewalk. But in the 1920s, as the bungalow belt was expanding and new homes were constructed on what was once farmland, there is now more room to build. This gave schools the chance to spread out as well, often taking up the entire block. This trend was influenced by the Progressive Era “playground movement,” which originated in Chicago and promoted urban parks for health and cognitive development in children. These new schools of the 1920s typically included large baseball fields and playground equipment — unheard of in the 1880s.
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Late 1800s Playground

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Never Born

The time has gone by.
The child is dead.
The child was never even born
Why go on? Why so much as begin?
How can we turn the clock back now
And not laugh at each other
As ashes laugh at ashes?

— Carl Sandburg, 1920

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The two sisters in sleepers
Tucked in the sheets of their trundles
Swaddled and put away in the dark,
These are sparrows under the eaves.

— Excerpt from “Two Sisters,” Unpublished

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The Two Skyscrapers Who Decided to Have a Child, 1922

Two skyscrapers stood across the street from each other in the Village of Liver-and-Onions. In the daylight when the streets poured full of people buying and selling, these two skyscrapers talked with each other the same as mountains talk.

In the night time when all the people buying and selling were gone home and there were only policemen and taxicab drivers on the streets, in the night when a mist crept up the streets and 134 threw a purple and gray wrapper over everything, in the night when the stars and the sky shook out sheets of purple and gray mist down over the town, then the two skyscrapers leaned toward each other and whispered.

Whether they whispered secrets to each other or whether they whispered simple things that you and I know and everybody knows, that is their secret. One thing is sure: they often were seen leaning toward each other and whispering in the night the same as mountains lean and whisper in the night.

High on the roof of one of the skyscrapers was a tin brass goat looking out across prairies, and silver blue lakes shining like blue porcelain breakfast plates, and out across silver snakes of winding rivers in the morning sun. And high on the roof of the other skyscraper was a tin brass goose looking out across prairies, and silver blue lakes shining like blue porcelain breakfast plates, and out across silver snakes of winding rivers in the morning sun.

Now the Northwest Wind was a friend of the two skyscrapers. Coming so far, coming five hundred miles in a few hours, coming so fast always while the skyscrapers were standing still, standing always on the same old street corners always, the Northwest Wind was a bringer of news.

“Well, I see the city is here yet,” the Northwest Wind would whistle to the skyscrapers.

And they would answer, “Yes, and are the mountains standing yet way out yonder where you come from, Wind?”

“Yes, the mountains are there yonder, and farther yonder is the sea, and the railroads are still going, still running across the prairie to the mountains, to the sea,” the Northwest Wind would answer.

And now there was a pledge made by the Northwest Wind to the two skyscrapers. Often the Northwest Wind shook the tin brass goat and shook the tin brass goose on top of the skyscrapers.

“Are you going to blow loose the tin brass goat on my roof?” one asked.

“Are you going to blow loose the tin brass goose on my roof?” the other asked.

“Oh, no,” the Northwest Wind laughed, first to one and then to the other, “if I ever blow loose your tin brass goat and if I ever blow loose your tin brass goose, it will be when I am sorry for you because you are up against hard luck and there is somebody’s funeral.”

So time passed on and the two skyscrapers stood with their feet among the policemen and the taxicabs, the people buying and selling,—the customers with parcels, packages and bundles—while away high on their roofs stood the goat and the goose looking out on silver blue lakes like blue porcelain breakfast plates and silver snakes of rivers winding in the morning sun.

So time passed on and the Northwest Wind kept coming, telling the news and making promises.

So time passed on. And the two skyscrapers decided to have a child.

And they decided when their child came it should be a free child.

“It must be a free child,” they said to each other. “It must not be a child standing still all its life on a street corner. Yes, if we have a child she must be free to run across the prairie, to the mountains, to the sea. Yes, it must be a free child.”

So time passed on. Their child came. It was a railroad train, the Golden Spike Limited, the fastest long distance train in the Rootabaga Country. It ran across the prairie, to the mountains, to the sea.

They were glad, the two skyscrapers were, glad to have a free child running away from the big city, far away to the mountains, far away to the sea, running as far as the farthest mountains and sea coasts touched by the Northwest Wind.

They were glad their child was useful, the 138 two skyscrapers were, glad their child was carrying a thousand people a thousand miles a day, so when people spoke of the Golden Spike Limited, they spoke of it as a strong, lovely child.

Then time passed on. There came a day when the newsies yelled as though they were crazy. “Yah yah, blah blah, yoh yoh,” was what it sounded like to the two skyscrapers who never bothered much about what the newsies were yelling.

“Yah yah, blah blah, yoh yoh,” was the cry of the newsies that came up again to the tops of the skyscrapers.

At last the yelling of the newsies came so strong the skyscrapers listened and heard the newsies yammering, “All about the great train wreck! All about the Golden Spike disaster! Many lives lost! Many lives lost!”

And the Northwest Wind came howling a slow sad song. And late that afternoon a crowd of policemen, taxicab drivers, newsies and 139 customers with bundles, all stood around talking and wondering about two things next to each other on the street car track in the middle of the street. One was a tin brass goat. The other was a tin brass goose. And they lay next to each other.

The Rootabaga Stories by Carl Sandburg

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Building Design
The shorter, longer floor plans of elementary schools designed in Chicago during the 1920s reveal society’s new focus on health and hygiene in schools. The Victorian-era schools that came before were often tall and boxy buildings, three to four stories high. The tight floor plans meant darker spaces and not much natural ventilation. Bathrooms were often located in the dark and dirty basement, near the boiler room. But by the early 1920s, Chicago architects were designing long, narrow buildings that allowed more natural light and natural cross breezes through the classrooms. The overall number of bathrooms increased and moved to the same floors as the classrooms. Tile walls and terrazzo floors meant the spaces could easily be cleaned to prevent disease.

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Late 1800s school building

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"You might say at first shot that this is the hell of a place for a poet, but the truth is it is a good place for a poet to get his head knocked when he needs it. In fact, it is so good a place for a healthy man who wants to watch the biggest, most intense, brutal and complicated game in the world — the game by which the world gets fed and clothed — the method of control — the economics and waste — so good a place is it from this viewpoint that I think you will like it."

—Private Letter to Reuben Borough, July 20th, 1913

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"The most important and most original photoplay that has come to this city of Chicago the last year is being presented at the Ziegfield Theater this week in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. That is exactly the way some people say it.

The craziest, wildest, shivery movie that has come wriggling across the silver sheet of a cinema house. That is the way other people look at it.

It looks like a collaboration of Rube Goldberg, Ben Hecht, Charlie Chaplin, and Edgar Allen Poe — a melting pot of the styles and techniques of all four.

It is a healthy thing for Hollywood, Culver City, Universal City, and all other places where movie film is being produced that this photoplay has come along at this time. It is sure to have healthy hunches and show new possibilities in style and method to our American producers…

There are two murders. They are the creepiest murders this observer has thus far noted in photoplays. Yet the killings are only suggested. They are not told and acted out fully. (No censor could complain in this respect.) As murders, they remind one of the darker pages of Shakespeare, of Hamlet, Macbeth,and again of the De Quincey essay on 'Murder as a Fine Art.'"

—Excerpt from Review of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Tuesday May 21, 1921

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Kindergarten Classrooms
The elementary schools built in the 1920s were built about 15 years after publicly-funded kindergarten became commonplace across the United States. These schools were influenced by a new understanding of childhood development and learning. Chicago architects designed kindergartens with small fireplaces, built-in wooden and glass cabinets, as well as a separate building entrance and their own smaller bathrooms. Kindergarten classrooms, with this home-like atmosphere, were designed to bring a more comfortable scale to the massive building and ease the transition from home to school for these five year olds.

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Halsted Street Car

Come you, cartoonists,
Hang on a strap with me here
At seven o'clock in the morning
On a Halsted street car.

        Take your pencils
        And draw these faces.

Try with your pencils for these crooked faces,
That pig-sticker in one corner — his mouth —
That overall factory girl — her loose cheeks.

        Find for your pencils
        A way to mark your memory
        Of tired empty faces.

        After their night's sleep,
        In the moist dawn
        And cool daybreak,
        Tired of wishes,
        Empty of dreams.

—Carl Sandburg, 1916

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Assembly Halls and Gyms
In the growing bungalow belt neighborhoods, schools were also becoming centers of community life. Today, we take for granted the idea that a school serves the neighborhood in addition to the students, but this was a new idea in the 1920s. School architects shifted the assembly hall and gymnasium to the first floor, close to the front entrances, often anchoring each end of the central hallway. These large spaces provided easy access for public evening functions such as lectures, movies, plays, and sports tournaments.

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Hog Butcher for the World,
            Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
            Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
            Stormy, husky, brawling,
            City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
            have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
            luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
            is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
            kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
            faces of women and children I have seen the marks
            of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who
            sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
            and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
            so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
            job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
            little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning
            as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
            Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with
            white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young
            man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has
            never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse.
            and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of
            Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog
            Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with
            Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

—Carl Sandburg, 1914

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The Boll Weevil (Traditional song often performed by Carl Sandburg)

Listen to Sandburg sing

Oh, de boll weevil am a little black bug,
Come from Mexico, dey say,
Come all de way to Texas, jus' a-lookin' foh a place to stay,
Jus' a-lookin' foh a home, jus' a-lookin' foh a home.

De first time I seen de boll weevil,
He was a-settin' on de square.
De next time I seen de boll weevil, he had all of his family dere.
Jus' a-lookin' foh a home, jus' a-lookin' foh a home.

De farmer say to de weevil:
"What make yo' head so red?"
De weevil say to de farmer, “It's a wondah I ain't dead,
A-lookin' foh a home, jus' a-lookin' foh a home."

De farmer take de boll weevil,
An' he put him in de hot san
De weevil say: "Dis is mighty hot, but I'll stan' it like a man,
It is my home, this will be my home."

De farmer take de boll weevil,
An' he put him in a lump of ice;
De boll weevil say to de farmer: "Dis is mighty cool and nice,
It'll be my home, dis'll be my home."

De farmer take de boll weevil,
An' he put him in de fire.
De boll weevil say to de farmer: "Here I are, here I are,
Dis'll be my home, dis'll be my home."

De boll weevil say to de farmer:
"You better leave me alone;
I done eat all yo' cotton, and now I'm goin' to start on yo' corn,
I'll have a home, I'll have a home."

De merchant got half de cotton,
De boll weevil got de res'.
Didn't leave de farmer's wife but one old cotton dress,
An' it's full of holes, it's full of holes.

De farmer say to de merchant:
"We ain't made but only one bale,
And befoh we'll give yo' dat one we'll fight and go to jail,
We'll have a home, we'll have a home."

De farmer say to de merchant:
"We's in an awful fix;
De boll weevil et all de cotton up an lef ' us only sticks,
We's got no home, we's got no home."

And de cap'n say to de missus:
"What d' you t'ink o' dat?
De boll weevil done make a nes' in my bes' Sunday hat,
Goin' to have a home, goin' to have a home."

An' if anybody should ax you
Who it was dat make dis song,
Jus' tell 'em 'twas a big buck niggah wid a paih o' blue duckin's on.
Am' got no home, ain' got no home.

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More about our questioner
Joyce Bogue lives in the western suburbs but grew up in the Edison Park neighborhood on Chicago’s Far Northwest Side. She attended Christian Ebinger School from kindergarten to eighth grade, graduating in 1969. The library was Joyce’s favorite room in the whole building. It was in that small room — lined with shelves of books, large wooden tables, and tall windows — that she acquired her lifelong love of reading. Before visiting Ebinger School with Curious City, she had not been back to school or her old neighborhood since the summer of her graduation. She was delighted to find that “the kids seem really happy and really like it as much as I did when I went here.” Upon returning to the school, she also noticed that everything in the building had magically gotten much smaller in the past 50 years.

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Listen to the audio version of this story:

Reporting by Jen Masengarb
Multimedia production by Katherine Nagasawa
Editing by Alexandra Salomon

Special thanks to historian Julia Bachrach; associate professor Dale Gyure of Lawrence Technological University and author of The Chicago Schoolhouse: High School Architecture and Educational Reform, 1856-2006; and architect Aimee Eckmann of Perkins+ Will for their expertise and research.

Images courtesy Chicago Board of Education Archives, American Builder Magazine, and Reinberg Elementary School.