Asumag 605 Uniqueimpressions

Unique Impressions

May 1, 2008
Unique sites can become teaching facilities.

For much of the 20th century, it was the engine that powered one of nation's most massive retail operations. But by the beginning of the 21st century, the historic building was no longer needed to supply energy to what remained of the once bustling Sears, Roebuck and Co. campus on the West Side of Chicago.

The original purpose of the Power House, as the facility has been known since it was built in 1905, ended a few years ago when it was decommissioned. But the days of dormancy won't last long for the edifice. In 2009, extensive renovations will be completed, and students and teachers will transform the building into the Henry Ford Academy: Power House Charter High School.

Educators — especially those operating charter and private schools — searching for spaces suitable to house their schools often turn to facilities that at first glance might seem an odd match for classroom space. As construction costs climb and the availability of traditional sites dwindles, administrators and architects are able to envision education facilities in improbable settings — whether it's an old power plant, a shuttered shoe factory or a vacant shopping mall.

The Power House is one example among many in which educators, architects and community members come together to provide critically needed education space, give new life to unwanted or obsolete structures, and stretch the definition of what can be an effective and inspiring learning environment.

“The only limit is our imagination,” says Kristin Dean, president of Homan Square, which is redeveloping the old Sears complex.

Powerful history

As the world's largest retailer in the early 1900s, Sears needed a sprawling campus to house its headquarters and store the mountain of goods it mailed to its catalog customers across the nation. The complex it built in Chicago's Lawndale neighborhood included a mail-order plant with more than 3 million square feet of space, rail spurs to bring merchandise in and out of the campus, and numerous other buildings, including the Power House.

The retailer moved its headquarters to downtown Chicago in 1973 when it opened the world's tallest building, the Sears Tower. By 1988, Sears had ended most of its operations at the West Side campus, and the neighborhood, steeped in poverty and population decline, desperately needed a boost. The company's top executive, Ed Brennan, sought out developer Charlie Shaw to come up with a plan for revitalizing the area using the solidly built Sears structures as a foundation.

The Homan Square developers brought in new housing, a community center, health services and other amenities. They had determined that because of the Power House's placement on the National Register of Historic Places, and because of the nature of the building itself, its best chance at finding a successful new purpose would be as an educational or non-profit facility.

Converging paths

In 2005, as the Homan Square folks were looking for a Power House tenant, the Chicago public school system unveiled a reform plan called Renaissance 2010 that called for opening 100 new schools in the city by 2010. Meanwhile, in Dearborn, Mich., the Henry Ford Learning Institute was operating the Henry Ford Academy, a charter high school on the grounds of the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village. The institute was looking to expand to other cities and replicate the success it was seeing in Dearborn.

Dean says she talked with Chicago school officials about the Power House, and they encouraged her to get in touch with the Henry Ford program.

“They came in to look at the building and said, ‘We love this,’” Dean says.

Once those involved agreed to proceed, the building had to undergo a metamorphosis. Even before the school plan was suggested, the developers spent some $2 million to remove asbestos and lead paint from the building. The facility was four stories high, but to accommodate the immense equipment required to generate electricity, heating and cooling, there was only one floor. The renovated facility will have just one floor on the building's north side. It will be a gathering place called the Great Hall, where students can assemble for special activities or the community can host events after school hours.

“It's a grand space,” says Dean. “It's open, voluminous and light-filled. It's not going to be used just 9 to 3. It's going to be in use long after students have finished classes.”

On the south side of the building, workers are filling in the space with floors that will triple the building's square footage to about 95,000. That side of the building will house classrooms and labs, says Dean. The basement of the facility, with 14-foot ceilings, will house a cafeteria and other functions. The developers had expected to be able to have more space in the basement, but much of the area is taken up by thick slabs of concrete that were needed to support the heavy equipment that sat above.

“But as a result, there are a lot of different alcoves that could be used for dark rooms, sound studios or lecture halls,” says Dean.

Teaching history

In converting the facility to a school, the developers are preserving many of the features of the power plant to give students an understanding of what went on in the building and why it has historical significance. A huge crane that was used to haul heavy equipment will remain in the Great Hall; Dean envisions the school hanging a large projection screen for films or other multimedia presentations. High above ground level in the facility is a large chain-powered conveyor belt that was used to deliver bins of coal to furnaces and take the resulting ashes away. The school intends to preserve part of the system to give students an understanding of how the Power House functioned.

After the plant was decommissioned, Homan Square officials brought in the longtime chief engineer and videotaped him as he walked through the facility and explained the function of each piece of equipment.

Power House High will not have a gymnasium, but it will be able to take advantage of many of the services and facilities that have sprung up in 20 years of redevelopment at the old Sears campus. Those include a swimming pool and gymnasium run by the city park district, a health center, a YMCA and a computer lab.

Also being built near the Power House is Holy Family Lutheran School, which will serve children in grade pre-K to 8. While the Power House renovations continue, Henry Ford Learning Institute will use the third floor of the Holy Family school in 2008-09 to house Power House High for its inaugural year.

“They'll be right across the street from the Power House, and they'll be able to see what's going on with construction,” says Dean.

In its first year, Power House High will have only freshman; 606 students applied to attend, and 120 were chosen through a lottery. Most of the applicants are from West Side neighborhoods near the school. Power House High will add a grade each subsequent year until it becomes a four-year high school.

A long search

The Henry Ford Learning Institute was able to identify a site in Chicago early on in the process of creating the school. But often, the momentum for opening a school can outpace the ability of school leaders to find the right facility.

“We spent seven years looking for a permanent facility,” says Angela Naples, principal of The Atlanta Academy, a non-denominational Christian school for grades pre-K to 8. While looking in Atlanta's suburbs for land to build a permanent site, it housed its classrooms in trailers and a rented church basement in Sandy Springs, Ga.

“Everything we looked at was too expensive or not large enough,” Naples recalls of the site search.

Eventually, school leaders concluded that they were unlikely to find land to build on, so they shifted their search to include existing facilities. Eight miles away from its rented site was vacant space in a strip shopping mall in Roswell, Ga. Naples says some involved with the school were not enthusiastic about such a facility, but after years of looking, she was eager to have a permanent home, even if it wasn't ideal.

“We were looking for something that would work,” says Naples.

The site was a 60,000-square-foot space in the center of a 90,000-square-foot shopping strip. It previously had housed a furniture store and had briefly been the home of a Fulton County charter high school.

“It was a nasty, beat-up space,” say Tim Fish and Nate Williamson, architects with Cooper Carry, which designed the conversion of the old store. “We had to make it look more like a school.”

That's what the space looked like when the Atlanta Academy opened the doors to its new home in 2007. “They really did a beautiful layout. It far exceeded our expectations. The outside still looks like a shopping center, but inside, it's an unbelievable school.”

Academy officials had feared they would lose enrollment by relocating the campus; some students did leave when the school moved, but new students replaced them, and the enrollment remained steady at about 165, Naples says. The school signed a five-year lease-purchase agreement with the owner that eventually would give the academy ownership of the entire shopping strip. With the additional space, the facility will be able to accommodate more than 400 students.

That will happen sooner than expected. After the new Atlanta Academy was unveiled, the building's owner decided to forgo the purchase agreement and donate the entire facility to the school.

“It gives a five-year jump start,” says Naples. “It allows us to really do things the right way.”

Instead of spending time and energy raising money to pay rent on the facility and carry out needed renovations, the school can accelerate the process of improving and expanding the campus. They can use the property they own as collateral for loans to pay for campus improvements. That includes elements such as converting parking areas to green space for play fields, adding a performing-arts center and altering the outside appearance of the facility so it is more school-like.

“It's not your typical school space,” says Fish. “It has a community and collaborative environment that parents can see and appreciate.”

Sidebar: Power it green

In transforming the century-old Sears Power House to a high school, designers and developers are planning a facility that is sensitive to 21st-century concerns about energy consumption and environmental impact.

The renovation and redesign of the facility is aiming to receive LEED gold certification for environmentally sensitive design from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Skylights and windows will provide the facility with ample amounts of daylight. A former railroad embankment is being converted into green space for students, and a geothermal heating and cooling system will be buried below it. The smokestack that rises high above the facility will be preserved, and a wind turbine will be incorporated into it. Other green elements include energy recovery ventilators, high-efficiency lighting and stormwater recovery.

The Henry Ford Institute plans to have an energy-monitoring kiosk that will provide real-time monitoring of building energy consumption, and allow students and building users to see the impact of their energy decisions.

Sidebar: If the shoe factory fits…

Attending the Cabool, Mo., campus of Drury University wasn't much different from going to high school. That's because Drury's Cabool campus, about 75 miles east of the main Springfield campus, was at the high school in Cabool.

School officials were eager to find a permanent site for the branch campus. They found one when the owners of a shoe factory that closed in the 1990s offered the facility to the university. The 10,000 square feet of space includes seven classrooms, including a science and computer lab, conference room and office space. The school also has plans to add an auditorium.

“It gives us a chance to have tables and chairs instead of high school desks, and classrooms that are more suitable for adult learners,” says Parris Watts, dean of Drury's College of Graduate and Continuing Studies.

The new campus provides students with a more collegiate atmosphere and enables Drury to expand its offerings in Cabool into daytime hours. The building was given a new modern-looking facade adorned with the Drury University logo.

Lu Adams, director of the Cabool program, says the factory space basically was a “huge, open space” that has been partitioned for classrooms and labs. “I don't think when you sit inside the classrooms, you can tell it used to be a shoe factory,” says Adams.

The old factory has additional space available. Adams says the university is willing to accept other businesses as neighbors “as long as we don't have anything noisy or smelly next to us.”

Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U.

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