Is Chicago Vocational HS headed for the National Register of Historic Places?

This is good news that we hope leads to a full-on effort to preserve the historic school — and rebuild its curriculum also.

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Chicago Vocational H.S. gymnasium entrance.

Lee Bey

We’ve been plenty concerned about Chicago Vocational, the architecturally important but underutilized Art Deco/Art Moderne designed high school in the city’s Avalon Park neighborhood.

Built in 1941 for 4,000 students, only about 800 pupils currently attend the school at 2100 E. 87th Street.

The city’s second-largest public school building — only Lane Tech is larger — Chicago Vocational is so underused, officials closed off a nearly block-long wing along Anthony Avenue, a few years ago.

There was even talk a few years back of wrecking the Anthony wing, which triggered concerns among the school’s alumni about the building’s future.

But those fears might be allayed a bit now. That’s because the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council last month voted to recommend the National Park Service list the rambling 81-year-old school on the National Register of Historic Places.

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“It is simply one-of-a-kind and thus the school is well-deserving in taking its place among other noted and honored structures,” said Michael L. Mims, a 1978 graduate of the school — he majored in architectural drafting — who is leading the National Register nomination effort.

This is good news that we hope leads to a full-on effort to preserve the historic school — and rebuild its curriculum also.

‘Exemplary and architecturally distinct’

Now called Chicago Vocational Career Academy, but best known by its original name, Chicago Vocational High School, CVS sits on a 22-acre campus west of the Chicago Skyway.

During its prime in the 20th century, the school provided a top-notch vocational education on the then-largely industrial Southeast Side.

But rather than stick students with a bare-bones, factory-like school building, Chicago Board of Education architect John C. Christensen designed a stylish building, rippling with architectural details.

Students nicknamed it “the Palace.”

“CVS was once hailed as the largest, most modern, best equipped trade school in the United States,” said Mims, who co-wrote the National Register nomination documents along with Ruby Oram, an assistant professor at the Texas State University Department of History.

“Too few buildings on our National Register represent histories of everyday people or the interests of local communities,” Oram told us.

Mims and Oram’s research turns up fascinating details about CVS and its history.

For instance, the building was built with 800,000 square feet of floor space and more than a mile of hallways providing access to 165 classrooms, shops and labs.

A sunken dining hall seats 2,000.

The U.S. Navy took over the building when it opened in 1941 and used the facility as a training school for naval aviation specialists until 1945.

As a public school, CVS became the alma mater for a host of luminaries from Chicago Bears great Dick Butkus to comedian Bernie Mac, for whom the building’s auditorium is named, and artist Kevin “WAK” Williams.

“CVS is an exemplary building and architecturally distinct from any other public school in Chicago,” Oram said. “But CVS is more than another Art Deco landmark. CVS is a monument of social history that represents the experiences of local students, teachers, and families.”

An SOS for CVS

The Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council met June 24 to approve recommending the National Park Service place CVS on the National Register.

The council also gave the nod to the Cornelia, a Beaux Arts residential tower at 3500 N. Lake Shore Drive; and the James E. Plew building, located at 2635-2645 S. Wabash Ave., in the Motor Row landmark district.

The effort will likely earn the support of city’s Commission on Chicago Landmarks today. The commissions program committee voted last month in favor of the recommendations.

But Mims and Oram’s good work shows the city must also get about the business of granting CVS local landmark status.

A city landmark designation would help protect the building from demolition or unsympathetic alterations.

And since Planning Commissioner Maurice Cox is now seeking to reactivate kitchens, gyms and other portions of shuttered schools — a great idea, we said last month — why not also direct the same energy to the unused portions of a landmarked CVS?

Together, a city landmark designation and the National Register could make a solid foundation to reinvest in CVS and turn it into the academic asset it once was — and must be again.

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