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Architectural Pioneer in School Design Commemorates Its 50th Anniversary

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This weekend, hundreds of alumni, faculty, students, and parents will gather at the Crow Island School in Winnetka, Ill., to mark the 50th anniversary of what is considered the most architecturally significant school building in the United States.

That Crow Island today does not at first glance look revolutionary probably speaks to its widespread influence on the school buildings that followed it, especially during the postwar enrollment boom.

The one-story, flat-roofed brick building resembles thousands of others scattered across the national landscape and would not be out of place in any American neighborL hood. "It is a prototype for the modern American school," said Peter Papademetriou, an architect and professor of architecture at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Not only America took note. Schools as far away as Tasmania are patterned after it, according to the American Institute of Architects.

The suburban-Chicago school, completed in 1940, has garnered numerous accolades for its contribution to school design and architecture. In the early 1940's, the aia named it the most advanced elemen tary-school design in the country.

In 1956, an Architectural Record poll rated Crow Island as 12th Lamong all buildings and first among all schools as the most significant in the previous 100 years of American architecture.

And in 1971, the aia bestowed its prestigious Twenty-Five Year Award on Crow Island for architec tural design of enduring significance. Last October, in response to a campaign by a committee planning the anniversary observances, the school was granted a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, and the U.S. Interior Department has invited the school to apply for landmark status.

An Adventure in Design

In 194o, Crow Island represented an adventure in school design--a first-time marriage of turn-of-the-century progressive educational thought with a physical surround ing specifically designed to enhance that philosophy.

Promoting the educational philosophy were Winnetka Superintendent of Schools Carleton Washburne and a 3rd-grade teacher, Frances L Presler.

Giving form to those ideas was a team of innovative architects and designers, including the renowned Finnish father-son duo of Eliel and Eero Saarinen.

Mr. Washburne, a disciple of the educator John Dewey, was the cre ator of an educational system L known as the "Winnetka plan," which embraced the idea that children mature intellectually at different rates. Mr. Washburne cham pioned individualized learning, with every student working at his own pace--an approach that is still used at Crow Island.

Such a philosophy was hampered, he felt, by the physical environment of existing Winnetka schools.

When an older school needed to be replaced, Mr. Washburne thought, "'We are going to build a school that honors children and takes into ac count all of their needs,"' according to Crow Island's current principal, Elizabeth Hebert.

A young Lawrence Perkins of the fledgling Chicago architectural firm of Perkins, Wheeler & Will (now Perkins & Will) approached Mr. LWashburne, but the educator said he wanted his ideas in the hands of an established architect, recalls Mr. Perkins, now in his 80's.

Not wanting to lose a major com mission, Mr. Perkins "took a deep breath" and told the superintendent that the elder Mr. Saarinen, a family friend, would do the project.

Later, Mr. Washburne called Mr. Perkins's bluff. "At which point I died 10,000 deaths," Mr. Perkins re members. But the young man was able to persuade the Finnish architect to head up the project--in exchange for half the profits.

Working together with Mr. Washburne was Frances Presler, "the woman who understood little children," according to Ronald Becklman, a professor at Cornell University's New York State College of Human Ecology.

In a letter to Eliel Saarinen, Ms. Presler wrote that the building must be "childlike" and a "place of joy in living." She believed that school buildings too often were designed to impress and celebrate the local school board, and she wanted the architect to keep the building materials at Crow Island humble and raw, Mr. Beckman said.

While Mr. Washburne was the dominant force in making Crow Is land a reality, it was Frances Lresler who "had more ideas--and good ones--per minute than anybody," according to Mr. Perkins. She came as close to verbalizing the aesthetics as anybody ever did." The Crow Island memory most of ten cited by alumni who responded to an anniversary questionnaire, said Ms. Hebert, was the time they spent in a Frances Presler creation: the Pioneer Room. Every 3rd grader in the Winnetka schools still spends at least one day in the life-size log cabin, dressed in period costumes, cooking over a fire, dipping candles, and "hunting" in adjacent woods.

A Collaborative Effort

As part of researching the design of the school, Mr. Perkins said he spent three or four months alongside the children in Winnetka classes. He received design suggestions from all fronts and honored as many as he could, including one from the janitors, who wanted the basement boiler placed under the school's front steps to keep them free of winter ice.

The massive collaboration--Mr. Perkins said he once counted about 80 people who had contributed--paid off, said Mr. Beckman of Cornell University. "Generally, the Idea of satisfying the board with pompous and slick space was suc cessfully avoided," he said. At the time Crow Island was built, the typical school was a three-story rectangular "institution" with class rooms that had fixed seating in rows, all lending a very military feel, according to Mr. Beckman.

But Crow Island broke free.

Classrooms spring like saw teeth off the main wings of the low, flat building. Each classroom has two walls of windows and opens to its own outdoor area as well as to a central hallway. Each also has its own workroom or lab and its own unisex bathroom.

Throughout the building, features are scaled to the size of the user. Of fices and restrooms for adults are standard size, but in the classrooms, door handles, light switches, counter tops, and toilets are scaled to the children in that grade level-- in effect, growing as the children grow. In addition, student desks and chairs are movable, and the seating in the auditorium is tailored to the size of the children, small seats in front, larger ones in back.

Such design "comes from a kind of understanding of the humanity ar chitecture is capable of," Mr. Beck man said. "That makes the building revolutionary."

"There's a very warm, cozy, com fortable feeling," Ms. Hebert said of the classrooms. "Everything [the students] need is right there," she said, adding that even the children's bicycles are parked directly outside their rooms.

Refurbishing Planned

The flood of publicity--28 nation al magazine articles and 10,000 visitors--that greeted such innovation, Mr. Perkins maintains, was more a product of the Depression-era con struction "vacuum" than the arrival of a history-making building.

Few had been able to afford to build a structure of any significance during the previous decade, so the press was simply hungry for a story, according to the architect.

In conjunction with the anniver sary, the Winnetka Public Schools, the aia, and other groups are spon soring an invitational conference next month to try to foster nation wide the educator-architect dialogue that helped create a school that not only accommodates the learning process but enhances it.

While its design may be timeless, some of the school's exterior features show the effects of the years, school officials said.

Weather has taken its toll on the ceramic bas-relief plaques that apL pear as a "spot of fun" on brick walls outside each classroom, Ms. Hebert said. The decorations, created by Eero Saarinen's wife Lillian, a sculptor, de pict subjects appropriate to each Lgrade's curriculum--farm animals for the 1st graders, American Indians for the 2nd graders, and so on.

Fund raising, for refurbishing items not covered by district maintenance money, makes up part of the anniversary activities, Ms. Hebert said. Funds will also go toward re pairing the central chimney's signa ture off-center clock, which has not kept time in 30 years, she added.

With 50 years' perspective on the school that made his firm's reputa tion, Mr. Perkins said he had no apologies: "It's a good building."

But if the architects did anything that now seems short-sighted, Mr. Perkins added, it was to be too in flexible in such classroom specifica tions as shelf height. "More permissiveness and less carefully over- programmed space is a requirement for education," he said.

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