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Thursday, October 18, 2007

A building as useful as it was beautiful: Losing Riis School

My heart broke this morning when I saw this image on Gaper's Block:


Jacob Riis School in Chicago is finally on its way down. Didn't quite make it to 100.

A 2004 article by Ben Joravsky in The Chicago Reader noted that Mayor Daley plans to build 100 new schools within Chicago in the next several years. Why not make that 99, and revive this sturdy gem? Demolition of such a beautiful and solid building is plainly, foolishly, callously wasteful. The Reader article also noted that the building can't be condo-ized essentially because it's too well built--the internal walls are masonry, and therefore make it tricky to reconfigure. Not only does that mean the building is amazingly structurally tough, but it also means that the structure ought to be used for what it was built to do: Be. a. school.

With Hull House and Maxwell Street already gone (or, um, demolished and repeatedly relocated, at any rate) thanks to my alma mater, the University of Indifferent Commuters, it seems extra cruel somehow to tear down a school named after Jacob Riis. The name of the school always had seemed to me like a nice nod to the area's heritage as a neighborhood of tenements and poor immigrants, and also as a place that had been home to some of the greatest social institutions for the poor in the history of the city of Chicago. In his day, Jacob Riis's photographs brought to light the conditions in which many of New York's poorest immigrants in the later 19th and early 20th century lived. He is probably best known for his book How the Other Half Lives. One more nod to the area's actual heritage, wiped off the map. But I'm sure Chicago needs another faceless, flimsy condo development much more than it needs a sturdy, beautiful brick public school named after a man who devoted his life to improving the lives of the poor.

More Riis shots from Carey Primeau here.

And thanks to David Schalliol for confirming my "Please don't tell me this is what I think it is."


Anonymous said...

What's the address of this school? I'm going to be in Chicago this weekend so maybe I can get some more demo pics.

Jennifer said...

More here:
Final Bell at Riis School

Anonymous said...

Why tear it down? I dunno. Lead. Asbestos. ADA accessability, just to get things started. Also, it's cheaper to build more energy effficient building from modern materials using safer, better construction methods. Also, should we impose an extra tax of some kind to pay for rehabbing buildings? Or, hell, lets just make all the owners pay for everything to rehab their buildings. They're all billionaires, right?

Anonymous said...


Chris said...

You know, according to St. Louis's water department website, the red water tower was saved because they realized restoring would cost the same amount (or less) as tearing it down.

Do we know for sure that it would cost less to tear down the Riis school than restore it?

Besides, you have to take the same amount of care with lead and asbestos abatement during demolition as when you restore a building.

Doug Duckworth said...

It always tickles me when numerical cost of rehab is used as a justification for demolition. It is too expensive to rehab a given building. Yet the total utility of a building will always be calculated incorrectly when people only look at rehab cost. Personal preferences are a big determining factor. If the community values a given building, then the desirable outcome may be preservation even though it is expensive. Was Preservation Chicago engaged with the community in an effort to save the school?

Looking at Carr School in the context of Riis, I am amazed that it is not yet demolished. Comparing it to Riis, Carr is still around even though it is in worse condition. Perhaps with Carr the desire is to defer the cost of demolition until it is absolutely necessary?