Children sit on the grass at Crow Island shortly after the school opened. Chicago History Museum

When it opened 75 years ago, Crow Island School revolutionized school design. It’s had many imitators since, but few can match its vision for experiential, child-centered learning.

The school received the prestigious

Crow Island School, in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, Illinois, is a beloved icon of progressive school design. With bright and airy L-shaped classrooms, exquisite material details, and kiddie-scaled everything, Crow Island is something like the Seagram Building of elementary schools. Celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, the school’s influence has reached far and wide.

But if that’s the case, why do so many elementary schools still look like tired, institutional warehouses?

Crow Island was an early project of Lawrence Perkins, founder of the now-global architecture firm Perkins + Will, who used the school to set in motion a prolific education-design practice. Eliel and Eero Saarinen, the renowned Finnish-born father and son architects, were the school’s other designers, brought on by the district to a lend top-shelf sensibility to Perkins’ young and hungry firm.

Twenty-Five Year Award from the American Institute of Architects in 1971, the only K-12 education building ever to be so honored. Crow Island is typically regarded as the first Modernist elementary school building in North America.

True to this Modernist ethos, Crow Island distinguished itself through a break with the past. Like most all public buildings, the design of schools through history paraded through a succession of historical stylistic tropes: Gothic, Neoclassical, Beaux Arts, “all proportioned to the rules and proclaiming their cultural affiliations by pale symbols of Latium,” reported Architectural Forum in a 1940 article on Crow Island. There was not much on-the-ground assessment of how schools actually functioned and how students used them.

“Crow Island turned all that upside down,” says education architect Steven Turckes, of Perkins + Will.

Pedagogical changes associated with the Progressive Era began to inspire new ideas about how children in an urbanizing democracy should learn. At that time, students learned in pattern-book schools designed with more than a bit of rote copying, and likewise, the way they learned was through rote memorization: A teacher at the front of the class drilled facts into them as they sat in desks bolted to the floor.

Reformers like the University of Chicago’s John Dewey espoused a more active mode of learning. In the late 1930s, Winnetka superintendent Carleton Washburne asked for a school that would “encourage spontaneity, variation, initiation, creative work and independent thinking.”

(Chicago History Museum)
(Chicago History Museum)

Perkins began his research by spending weeks in Winnetka elementary schools, and what he learned was borne out in the school’s classroom design.  Each room is an L-shape, with a main instruction space formed by two wide window walls, and a smaller, flexible work space where kids can step away from day-to-day, teacher-led instruction and focus on longer-term projects.

The work zones, says Beth Hebert, a former principal, “are the original maker-space, places where students can go to create things of their own design.”

The school’s classrooms look out to a lush forested public park, and all have cozy, landscaped courtyards. The landscaping throughout is pleasingly overgrown and filled with shaded nooks and crannies to explore, offering places to practice the skills of seclusion and concentration.  

The combination of secluded outdoor space, a variety of instruction areas, and each classroom’s own sink and bathroom made each class a self-contained village of its own; a cloistered place to try on different responsibilities and activities. Crow Island was far more child-centered than previous generations of schools. Door handles and custom-designed furniture were all child-scaled.

“It was their own little world within the larger context of the school,” says Turckes.

The school emphasized the Bauhaus ideal of integration of all arts by including playful ceramic animal sculptures by Eero’s wife Lilian Saarinen. Crow Island’s commitment to Modernism didn’t make it stark—the Saarinens’ brickwork also offers unexpected flourishes, like a blueprint of the building in raised brick.

In the school’s basement is the “Pioneer Room,” a faux log cabin where students dip candles and spin wool. (Architectural Forum in 1940: “There could be no worse method for teaching history.”) This room’s inclusion shows that Crow Island has never been too precious about its own legacy. The school is made of simple and durable materials, like the ponderosa pine that panels each classroom, which teachers have used to pin students’ work to the walls for 75 years.

After the debut of Crow Island in 1940, the next great boom in school building came in the Baby Boom years. Many of those schools copied Crow Island, but only its most basic elements: an asymmetrical single-story made of brick, with strong horizontal lines and large windows. What emerged was the classic postwar school box, a “factory model,” says school architect John Dale. (Ironically, these elements of Modernist design were the opposite of what the Saarinens were known for, having developed a warmer and more wood-hued take on the International Style.)

Some early Modern-era schools (like Perkins + Will’s Heathcote School) applied the Crow Island template directly and included the material detailing that made it a standout. In 2001, 47 years later, Perkins + Will featured the same asymmetrical chimney tower and broad expanses of windows in its Harold G. Fearn Elementary School. A few recent primary school projects have adopted the model wholeheartedly, emphasizing the same multipurpose, independent learning spaces and artful floor-to-ceiling windows. They include Cranbrook Kingswood Girls Middle School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and Trillium Creek Primary School in West Linn, Oregon.

But most school districts were more reluctant than the affluent North Shore suburb of Winnetka to invest in an idiosyncratic building, ostensibly more expensive to build and maintain. (Actually, at a cost of $287,000, Crow Island came in under budget, according to the Chicago Reader.) School districts preferred standardization to Crow Island’s sense of exploration, play, and artistry.  

Next month, the American Architectural Foundation will host its National Summit on School Design at Crow Island, as the school celebrates turning 75. Architect Kerry Leonard, the conference organizer, says that Crow Island’s design legacy comes from a rare and deep dialogue between educators and architects.

“Many schools have tried to emulate portions of the design, but in only a few instances has there been the engaged dialogue between the educator clients and architect. And in fewer instances has the attention to children been brought to the design with the skill and care of what we see in Crow Island.”

Turckes agrees. “In less-skilled hands,” he says, “it just doesn’t have the same quality and character that Crow Island does.”

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