eptember 01, 2009
Power play: architects help turn old Sears power plant in Chicago into new charter school
In London nine years ago, Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron took a mighty, decommissioned power station on the Thames River and transformed it into Tate Modern (left), an acclaimed showcase for the Tate Gallery's collection of modern art.
Now in Chicago, a team of architects, foundation leaders and consultants has turned a handsome but derelict old power plant that once served Sears, Roebuck & Co.'s massive West Side headquarters into an inspired (and likely, inspiring) public charter high school.
Named the Charles H. Shaw Technology and Learning Center, in memory of the late Chicago developer who had a passion for revitalizing the beleaguered North Lawndale neighborhood, the building houses Power House High (below), which will welcome its first students Tuesday.
The $40 million project, aided by $17 million in federal tax credits, has recovered the architectural glory of the old power plant, especially in a soaring turbine room with glistening white brick walls and tall, arched windows.
Throughout are energy-saving features, from retrofitted historic windows to geothermal wells, that are expected to earn the center a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold rating from the U.S. Green Building Council.
Located at 931 S. Homan Ave., just south of the Eisenhower Expressway, the 104-year-old structure is among the remnants of Sears' once-vibrant West Side catalog operation. Chicago architects Nimmons & Fellows melded Chicago School efficiency and classical decoration in the complex, which at its height mailed thousands of orders every day to customers across America.
Sears left in 1973 for the 110-story Sears (now Willis) Tower. More than 30 years later, the power plant appeared to be a white elephant. Its arched windows were either broken or boarded up. Birds flew inside. And oversize rodents lived there.
"We thought they were cats -- they turned out to be rats," said Kristen Dean, president of the Homan Arthington Foundation. The foundation worked with Shaw, who died in 2006, to develop more than 300 homes and a community center in North Lawndale.
The wisdom of the foundation's decision to reuse the power plant is now fully apparent, thanks to Chicago architects Farr Associates, who worked with the Midwest office of MacRostie Historic Advisors.
A palace of steam is now a palace of learning, even if some details, like the steel entrance staircases, are disappointingly mundane. Yet old arched windows (left, at rear of building, with new fire escapes) have been sensitively replaced with double-glazed, energy-efficient glass. And the building's 185-foot-tall, brick chimney has been handsomely restored.
To their credit, the architects didn't strip the building of its grit. On the north facade, for example, smudgy lines formed by old lean-to buildings haven't been erased. Round terra cotta decoration enlivens the brown brick exterior with details like bolts of electricity..
Inside, Farr Associates followed the broad outlines of the Tate Modern, making the three-story turbine room a dramatic great hall and turning the boiler room into smaller but no less compelling spaces -- in this case, classrooms and meeting rooms instead of galleries.
The results are particularly impressive in the turbine room (left), which will be used for school assemblies, a cafeteria, exercise activities and community events. Instead of large sculptural projects, as at the Tate, the room is populated by huge industrial objects, including a big blue chilling machine and a 40-ton gantry crane.
"Every room in this building has a story," said Farr Associates' principal designer on the project, Jonathan Boyer.
The story and spaces are equally good in the building's other half, where giant boilers once turned water into steam. There, the architects supervised the removal of a junglelike thicket of machinery and carefully threaded new floors, walls, corridors and stairwells amid historic features they retained as artifacts.
Windows in some classrooms offer views to the the building's chimney. A coal ash conveyor belt is displayed behind glass.
The school's leaders -- Principal Kothyn Evans-Alexander and executive Chris Reynolds, who works for the school's partner, the Henry Ford Learning Institute of Dearborn, Mich. -- predict that the architecture and artifacts will inspire curiosity and help drive home lessons that books alone would not.
It remains to be seen, though, whether the design will help or hinder teaching. Will boisterous kids turn the hard-surfaced turbine room into an echo chamber?
Even if the Shaw Center lacks the Tate Modern's bracing contrasts of old and new, it is still likely to emerge as a model for recycling historic buildings -- and for harnessing architecture's aesthetic power to a broader social purpose.