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06.05.2014
Tower of Learning
Chicago's vertical South Loop high school finishes construction.
Jones College Prep in the South Loop rehabbed an old Perkins + Will building, connecting it to a new P+W vertical campus that opened in the fall.
James Steinkamp / Steinkamp Photography

With Midwest city centers in rebound, new schools are coming downtown, too. In May students at William Jones College Prep in Chicago’s South Loop went to class for the first time in a renovated building at 700 South State Street, recently brought up to speed with an adjoining urban campus built last year and open to students in August. Perkins + Will designed both buildings, built some 40 years apart. Perkins + Will’s Ralph Johnson explained that the intent was to create a truly urban high school. “We wanted to make it feel like you’re part of the city, even when you’re inside the building,” he said in the building’s airy three-story lobby.

At seven floors and 278,000 square feet, the high school may feel amply sized, but like many Chicago Public Schools it faces rising demand. Enrollment is growing, and principal Joseph Powers said they hope to top out the student body at 1,750. Dr. Powers said last year’s freshman class had more than 12,000 applications from around the city for only 400 available seats.

   
 

Those who do make it to the other side of the school’s selective enrollment process, however, enjoy a 500-seat auditorium that supports the school’s lauded theater arts program. Connected to the lobby at all three-levels, the space also hosts outside groups and after-hours events. Jones’ theater recently hosted a Brazilian film festival. The Art Institute and Goodman Theater are nearby for field trips.

 

“Schools have a tendency to turn in on themselves if you’re not careful,” said Powers. Being in downtown Chicago, Jones College Prep makes the most of its surroundings—Grant Park and Lake Michigan are assets for physical education in good weather, but the school has a light-filled gym and natatorium on the seventh floor, as well. Johnson said more than 90 percent of the building has access to natural light, including a corner music room with sweeping views of the Chicago skyline.

The building may be downtown, but it is across the street from a large surface parking lot. Despite its prolonged exposure to sunlight, the designers say it will attain LEED Gold status. There are only 70 parking spots, tucked beneath the building and accessed via the back alley.

 
 

The bulk of the building’s classrooms are stacked between the physical education-focused top floor and the common library, lunchroom, and lobby areas. The goal of consolidating such spaces on the fourth and fifth floors, the design team said, was to preserve the sense of “school-as-community center” common to horizontally laid out educational buildings. Though the seven-story building does have elevators, Principal Powers said wide, glassy stairwells encourage kids to take the stairs.

Perkins + Will designed the existing building during the mid-1960s. Though it opened in April, it is still undergoing some facade work. Students travel between the old building and the new vertical high-rise via a covered canopy.

Running an urban campus has its administrative challenges. Principal Powers recalled catching a few kids ordering out for sandwiches from one of the building’s terraces. They yelled to the delivery man to place their order in a basket they’d lowered to the street, but didn’t realize the scene was unfolding right outside Powers’ office window.

Chris Bentley