Thursday, September 24, 2015

More Than You Ever Wanted To Know About Stewart School

Graeme Stewart School, circa 1915.
In looking up information about Graeme Stewart and its future sale, we found a lot of information about the former school that might be interesting to Uptown history buffs and/or former Stewart students among our readership.
  • Future famous people went there. The school taught both Harrison Ford (who grew up at 922 Sunnyside) and director William Friedkin (4826 Sheridan). There's anecdotal evidence that other alumni include actress Gloria Swanson (who got her start at nearby Essanay Studios), screenwriter/director Philip Kaufman (best known for The Right Stuff), and author and humorist Dan Greenburg.
  • When it was built, its design was considered radical. The school's construction was completed on October 11, 1905 (other sources say 1908, but we'll go with the oddly specific 1905 date). It was designed by famed architect Dwight Perkins, who came up with the plans for many Chicago schools, including nearby Trumbull School and the beautiful campus at Schurz High School. Perkins designed schools in a way that was considered bonkers at the time: auditoriums should be on the first floor, to encourage their use as community centers; classrooms should be spacious and sunny; and schools should be surrounded by open space.
  • There used to be a street where its lawn is now.  Newer residents might not realize that the green space in front of the school used to be Kenmore Avenue. In 2008, using $1.64 million in Wilson Yard TIF funds and Open Space Impact funds, Kenmore was filled in north of Sunnyside to create a green "front yard" for the school. There used to be a not-entirely-traffic-friendly three-way intersection at Broadway, Sunnyside, and Kenmore.
  • Despite predictions, it's still standing. In 1968, both Stewart School and Stockton School (now Courtenay) were scheduled for replacement within 20 years. Instead, nearly 50 years later, Stewart's next use is being determined, and the Stockton building received a massive makeover a few years ago to bring it into compliance with ADA and safety regulations.
  • Its namesake was a pretty important guy in turn-of-the-century Chicago. Graeme Stewart was at one time the President of the School Board; was a confidant of President McKinley; ran for mayor against Carter Harrison; and was the driving force behind Illinois being awarded Great Lakes Naval Training Facility, out of 37 other possible sites. There was also a CFD fireboat named in his honor, which helped rescue survivors of the Eastland Disaster.
  • It went from wildly, insanely overcrowded to "underutilized" in less than four decades. This last bit is what we found most surprising. As most of us know, underutilization was the reason given for consolidating the student bodies of Brennemann and Stewart when Stewart was closed after the 2012-2013 school year. Stewart was only 41% utilized at that time, according to CPS. But for most of its lifespan, the school was constantly overcrowded. It's surely a reflection of Uptown's changing demographics and Chicago's dropping population (there were a million more residents in 1950 than there are now). Consider these statistics:
  • In 1939, Stewart was so overcrowded that land south of the original school was bought and an addition was built, opening in 1941. There were so many students that the only way to fit them all in was to convert the school's basement into classrooms and have students attend half-days.
  • In 1953, citing a booming birthrate and a population influx (this was during the period when many Appalachians migrated to Uptown), some CPS schools were forced to go on double shifts, including Stewart and Goudy. The specific reason given for these two schools being overcrowded was that landlords were starting to subdivide Uptown's large apartments into two or more smaller units, allowing more families to move into the area.
  • In the early 1960s, Stewart had so many students that an annex was created at 708 Montrose. That's parkland! The "annex" consisted of trailers parked on the grass that were used as temporary classrooms. 
  • Brennemann School opened in 1962 for the specific purpose of relieving the overcrowding at Stewart. When it opened, it had 825 students, 779 of whom came from Stewart, which was still at capacity after that.
  • Even with Brennemann taking on more than 800 students, there were 1,300 children enrolled at Stewart in grades K through 6 in 1967.
  • In 1968, there were 31% more students in Uptown's schools than the previous year, and 17 "mobile classrooms" were forced into use. The Department of Urban Renewal recommended building three more schools to handle the huge number of CPS students -- one at Hazel and Wilson (Arai Middle School opened in 1974 and was closed in 2006, citing "low utilization of both Arai and the four Arai feeder schools"), one at Leland and Magnolia (never happened), and one at Lawrence and Kenmore (ditto).
  • Contrast those numbers with 2012-2013, the last year Stewart was open: There were just 256 students in the building. That same year, CPS said both Stewart (41%) and Brennemann (320 students, 51%) were operating under capacity, and combined the two student bodies. The latest figures we can find show Brennemann having 470 students after the consolidation. What a change in just the last 50 years, going from overflowing classrooms and building additional schools to schools being combined and still having room for more students. All communities are in constant flux and Chicago has lost over a million residents; nowhere is it more evident than in the number of students attending Uptown's public schools.


  1. I either forgot or didn't know Friedkin went there. Great director. His car chase sequences are a thing of beauty. Some of the scenes in "The Exorcist" remind me of my second, or was it third?, marriage.

  2. I went to those trailers in the early 1960s. We called them The Cottages.

  3. I attended the Stewart School cottages, starting Kindergarten in 1956. We were moved to the main building for third grade in the fall of 1959. It's nice to read about others who attended at the same time. Hello to all! Janet Eisner Cornish

  4. My photo is in the 1952, 3rd grade class photo labeled 107, 3B-3A. I remember some names decades later. Where are these people now??? ! Wow! I have fond memories of Stewart School, from Kdg through 6th grade. I loved the building and I am happy it is still standing as condos. Over 50 kids in our classes, and all went well. Different times, for sure.

  5. Does anyone remember my aunt, June Zeitler who taught and became principal there? Would love to hear any remembrances.