A former West Pullman elementary school has been redeveloped into a senior housing facility on the Far South Side. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
The $20 million project repurposes a landmark and revives it as a community asset. Anyone who enters the nearly block-long brick structure in West Pullman expecting to find a typical collection of apartments for seniors is in for a pleasant surprise.
Wide corridors invite chance meetups. Generously sized windows stream light deep into the building. There’s an abundance of touches too rich looking to be new, such as built-in bookcases and old doors repurposed as decoration. And there’s the big nod to the past — chalkboards in most of the 60 units. Residents use them for notes and reminders.
Also, few senior housing sites have their own auditorium and gym, even if they are off-limits for now because of the coronavirus.
The building at 11941 S. Parnell Ave. is the old West Pullman Elementary School, with part of its structure dating from 1894. It grew to allow for a capacity of 2,000 students, but dwindling enrollment led former Mayor Rahm Emanuel to close it in 2013, making it one of dozens of suddenly empty buildings that became a challenge for their communities.
Can an old school be reconfigured for some other use?
Absolutely, in West Pullman’s case.
Developer Scott Henry, principal of Celadon Holdings, was sensitive to the possibilities. He was born in the area and his mother attended the school. In retrospect, the building had attributes to make it a natural for senior living, even if there were many difficulties along the way. He hired Chicago-based architectural firm UrbanWorks to help figure things out.
Henry said the construction costs and fees came in close to $20 million, and he had those moments common to any would-be rehabber. “In the middle of it, I’d look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘What are you doing? Were you crazy to start this?’ There are always big surprises, and you have to plan for contingencies.
“When it’s done and you have a beautiful project, it’s worth it. And you get people moving in who are so appreciative — some of them with tears in their eyes.” Henry has partnered with A Safe Haven Foundation, which helps people at risk of homelessness.
The units are mostly one bedroom, with a few two bedrooms. The classroom layout worked well for that purpose, said Maria Pellot, associate principal and design director at UrbanWorks. She said a typical classroom was 900 square feet, which can become an affordable two-bedroom apartment.
UrbanWorks partner Robert Natke said high ceilings lend a feeling of extra space and the large windows, reflecting a mindset that kids in class needed light and fresh air, are at least twice as large as what’s common in new construction. There was space to add elevators. The layout allowed for plenty of risers — ductwork running into the units, each of which has its own furnace, he said.
“Adaptive reuse is one of the best ways to make a sustainable approach to what we do every day,” Pellot said.
Henry paid Chicago Public Schools $250,000 for the property in 2017 and secured tax credits for historic preservation. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places and, in 2018, became an official Chicago landmark.
A report by the city’s landmarks staff that recommended the designation cited the school as a well-preserved and detailed example of public school trends from the early 20th century. It also was cited for showing how West Pullman, which the city annexed in 1890, grew as families were drawn to nearby employers such as George Pullman’s rail car works and International Harvester.
City of Chicago
The West Pullman School and students circa 1900, with a recently completed addition to the left, in a photo originally published by the West Pullman Land Association.
The architects for the school’s three sections were employed by the Chicago Board of Education, the system having decided that architects on commission were giving it cookie-cutter designs. The man credited with the 1894 section was W. August Fiedler, whose connections to high society in the late 19th century led to such work as the Germania Club on the North Side, a city landmark.
The first residents moved into the old school about a year ago. Reserved for people at least 55 years old, the building became full in a few months, Henry said.
He said he’s tried to keep rents affordable for people of modest means, roughly those making 50% of the area’s median income, and 18 units have rents subsidized by the Chicago Low-Income Housing Trust Fund. The 50% income standard for a family of four is $45,500 annually.
The property includes vacant land that could accommodate new construction. Henry said he hasn’t decided what might go there yet.
In the meantime, he’s looking forward to the coronavirus lifting so features like the old school lunchroom can be put to use by the community.
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