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Could preserving school’s regal architecture help CVS regain status as ‘the pride of the South Side’?

Some grads of Chicago Vocational High School say their alma mater is in a state of disrepair. As enrollment declines, they hope designating the school as an official Chicago landmark can save the building — and the community.

Chicago Vocational Career Academy High School, located at 2100 East 87th Street in the Stony Island Park neighborhood, Friday, Aug. 14, 2020. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
Alumni of the Chicago Vocational School say the school’s unique architecture might be a saving grace | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

In Avalon Park on the South Side, a massive structure sits, evoking memories of bright futures and immense pride.

Nicknamed “the Palace,” Chicago Vocational High School’s regal architecture and grand size seemed to fit the buzz about the place, former students say.

Alums included Bears great Dick Butkus and comic Bernie Mac, and the school drew motivated students, many of them Black and Brown, from across Chicago.

But that was then.

Now, the building, and the school, are hurting.

Enrollment has declined. The number of vocational programs at the school, now known as Chicago Vocational Career Academy, has been slashed.

The school, which opened in 1940, once housed more than 4,800 students, alumni say. Now it’s about 730.

For decades, the school boasted dozens of vocational programs, a nationally recognized marching band and top-notch sports teams. It was known as “the Pride of the South Side,” as alums are quick to remind you.

“There was an excitement about it,” Michael Mims recalled of his alma mater.

Mims, class of ’78, chairs the Chicago Vocational High School Restoration Project, which works to preserve the building. They also organized an online petition to obtain landmark status, which they hope will prevent the building’s demolition and prompt CPS to undertake extensive repairs — ideally, enough to attract more students and add more programs.

Chicago Vocational Career Academy High School, located at 2100 East 87th Street in the Stony Island Park neighborhood, Friday, Aug. 14, 2020. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
Chicago Vocational Career Academy currently offers 7 vocational programs. In its heyday it offered almost 30.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The push to save the building is also tied to a belief in vocational education, which alumni say has the power to lift many Chicago youth from underserved communities.

“I just want to see kids be excited like that again, saying, ‘I’m going to learn something new,’” Mims said.

The building, constructed in the late 1930s, was a project of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. It blends art deco and art moderne design, and features fluted exterior columns, curved ceilings and wood inlaid murals. It’s also one of the largest CPS buildings. The school was built for 6,000 students, Sun-Times editorial writer Lee Bey noted in his 2019 book, “Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side.” It also has 800,000 square feet of interior space over a 27-acre site, the equivalent of 512 blocks, according to the Restoration Project.

But today, the building is in disrepair, with water-damaged ceilings, a non-functional swimming pool and a shuttered “Anthony Wing,” named for its location along Anthony Avenue, that housed many of the school’s vocational programs, alumni say.

Mike Miller, an alumnus of Chicago Vocational High School, protests the state of the school outside CPS headquarters at 42 W. Madison St. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times
Mike Miller, an alumnus of Chicago Vocational High School, protests the state of the school outside CPS headquarters on Monday.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

In a statement, CPS said they are aware of the concerns raised by school alumni.

“The district strives to ensure students have access to high-quality facilities [and] ... we remain committed to continued engagement,” the statement read.

But improvements to the school, planned almost a decade ago, have been delayed or difficult due to budget constraints, the district said.

In 2012, CPS outlined plans for two rounds of capital improvements on the building.

In 2015, $56 million in work was completed, including interior renovations and mechanical, electrical and plumbing upgrades.

But lack of funds prevented a second round of work, which, among other things, would have included demolishing the “Anthony Wing,” at an estimated cost of $7 million.

Demolition of the wing hasn’t been included in any CPS capital plans since 2012.

To alums, the funding crunch that inadvertently saved the Anthony Wing, for now, offers a glimmer of hope.

Chicago Vocational High School Alumni protest the state of their school outside CPS headquarters at 42 W. Madison St.
Alumni of Chicago Vocational School hope landmark status can be the first step in restoring the school to its earlier days.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

The restoration group’s push for landmark status centers on saving the wing, as well as restoring the structure and its community to its prime.

For Mims and other alums, the Anthony Wing was a key part in their robust vocational education. At one time, the school offered almost 30 vocational programs, including aviation, welding and tailoring.

Today, the school has seven vocational programs, including diesel mechanics and cosmetology, and faces other challenges. CPS also offers other vocational programs, called Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs, in 84 other high schools, the district said. Currently, 13,000 students are enrolled in CTE programs.

Last year, it saw 63 arrests on its property, more than any other CPS school. Its graduation rate of 65.7% this year is about 20 percentage points below the state average.

Mims says recognition from the Commission on Chicago Landmarks not only would help preserve the school’s storied architecture, but also be the first step in turning the school around.

“It’s kind of like the Field of Dreams thing; if you build it, they will come,” Mims said.

“Once we get the landmark designation on the building, and can begin to look forward to having the property physically restored, that will create the space to reinstitute those vocational programs.”

Lisa DiChiera, the director of advocacy at Landmarks Illinois, a historic preservation advocacy organization, said there’s “no question” the school meets the criteria for a Chicago landmark. However, actually getting that status is more complicated.

Chicago Vocational Career Academy High School, located at 2100 East 87th Street in the Stony Island Park neighborhood, Friday, Aug. 14, 2020. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
Alumni say the school, located in the Stony Island Park neighborhood, is in desperate need of repairs
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“Usually Chicago Public Schools doesn’t want to see its buildings landmarked because they don’t want to have their hands tied on what they can and can’t do in the future,” DiChiera said.

Moreover, the Chicago Department of Planning and Development is unlikely to overstep the whims of another public agency like CPS without significant public pressure, she said.

“It really does come down to a political coalition that needs to make a push for this building to be designated as a Chicago landmark.”

While a landmark designation often saves buildings from demolition and adds another layer of scrutiny to any alterations, it doesn’t force property owners to maintain or repair their buildings, she said.

CPS has taken no position on a landmark designation, saying: “Any decision on landmark status would be done in collaboration with the community.”

While DiChiera said the building deserves landmark status, it’s only part of turning the school around.

Vocational education may be the solution to many problems facing the underserved communities of the South Side. Chicago Vocational High School Alumni protest the state of their school outside CPS headquarters at 42 W. Madison St.
Vocational education may be the solution to many problems facing the underserved communities of the South Side
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

“There has to be a multi-pronged effort to address all the needs of the school,” she said. “Landmarking is only one part of the entire endeavor to make this place better,”

Beyond preserving the architecture of the building, alumni say vocational programs are part of the solution to many problems in underserved South Side communities.

“The young people that graduate with a vocational education certificate, we already know those individuals will not be carjacking, those people will not be robbing people,” said Steve Strode, a 1982 Vocational graduate.

Strode, a South Side native, earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois.

He says vocational programs offer students an opportunity to live a “wonderful life,” especially when college isn’t an affordable option.

“These young kids got energy to do something, and unfortunately they get in the wrong direction,” he said. “We got to stop people, we got to save people.”