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Affordable senior housing to fill vacant West Pullman Elementary School

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The massive school fills an entire block on the Far South Side

City of Chicago

The West Pullman Elementary School served the community for more than 120 years before it closed along with more than 50 schools in 2013. Now the vacant building might get a second chance as affordable senior housing.

For years Chicago Public Schools has been trying to sell off the closed schools, which includes West Pullman on the Far South Side. North Side schools were snatched up quickly, so the bulk of what CPS put on the market last year were the closed schools on the South and West sides plus schools that were closed prior to 2013.

The former West Pullman Elementary School building is also up for landmark designation, a step that other developers of these schools have taken to get federal tax credits and some permit fees waived. The process can get complicated, as with Andersonville’s Lyman Trumbull Elementary School which took years to finalize.

Developer Celadon Holdings in partnership with A Safe Haven Foundation and architect UrbanWorks plan to redevelop the block-long building into senior affordable housing. Scott Henry, who heads up Celadon with Thad Garver, grew up near the West Pullman neighborhood in Roseland. His mother was a teacher at the elementary school and he was baptized in a church down the street. So, the chance to work on this redevelopment is meaningful to him.

“It saves a very important building in the community. The city was concerned with what was going to happen to the building. We’re excited to turn the space into something productive and thriving. There’s a big need for senior housing and this project could fill an unmet need,” Henry told Curbed Chicago. “We want to come back and create more positivity in the community.”

Stonework details on the west side of the original building.
City of Chicago

As for more details on the redevelopment project, that will come later on in the summer, Henry said. For now, the project has been tentatively approved with low-income housing tax credits from the city, according to Peter Strazzabosco, Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development.

Receiving a landmark designation is part of the redevelopment process, but also an important marker for the building which is a significant example of public school architecture from the Progressive Era.

The original school structure was built in 1894, at a time when traditional school design was changing, according to the landmark designation report. Instead of small, boxy buildings with equal-sized classrooms, architects were encouraged to design schools that were inspiring for students. The additions made in 1900 and 1924 to the West Pullman School illustrate this change with larger classrooms, a gymnasium, training rooms and flexible meeting spaces.

City of Chicago
The east elevation of the West Pullman Elementary School looking west from South Normal Avenue.

W. August Fielder, who designed the original part of the school, was also the first in-house architect for Chicago’s Board of Education. The board chose to switch from commission-based work in an effort to build schools that were less cookie-cutter and more customized.

That’s exactly what Fielder accomplished, and at a pretty impressive rate too. He designed 58 new schools and dozens of additions during his appointment which lasted from 1893 to 1896. Not one school followed the same layout—each was designed for its specific location and neighborhood.

During his first year, he built 22 new school buildings, including the West Pullman Elementary School, and designed plans for ten more schools buildings making it the most productive year for school construction.

The West Pullman School and students circa 1900.
City of Chicago