At Avalon Park on the south side, a massive structure sits, evoking memories of the bright future and immense pride.
Dubbed “the palace,” the regal architecture and large size of Chicago’s vocational high school seemed to match the buzz around the place, say former students.
Alumni included Bears’ big Dick Butkus and comedian Bernie Mac, and the school attracted motivated students, many of whom were black and brown, from all over Chicago.
But that was then.
Now the building and the school are suffering.
Registrations have declined. The number of vocational programs at the school, now known as the Chicago Vocational Career Academy, has been reduced.
The school, which opened in 1940, once housed more than 4,800 students, according to alumni. Now it’s about 730.
For decades, the school has offered dozens of professional programs, a nationally recognized marching band, and premier sports teams. It was known as âthe pride of the south side,â as the ancients quickly recalled.
“There was excitement about it,” Michael Mims recalled of his alma mater.
Mims, class of 78, chairs the Chicago Vocational High School Restoration Project, which works to preserve the building. They also organized a petition to achieve landmark status, which they hope will prevent the building from being demolished and spur CPS to undertake major repairs – ideally enough to attract more students and add more programs.
The drive to save the building is also tied to a belief in vocational education, which elders believe has the power to lift many young Chicagoans out of underserved communities.
âI just want the kids to be turned on like that again, like, ‘I’m going to learn something new,’â Mims said.
The building, constructed in the late 1930s, was a Depression-era Works Progress Administration project. It blends art deco and modern art, and features fluted exterior columns, curved ceilings, and wood-inlaid murals. It is also one of the largest buildings in the CPS. The school was built for 6,000 students, noted Sun-Times columnist Lee Bey in his 2019 book, “Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side.” It also has 800,000 square feet of interior space on a 27-acre site, the equivalent of 51??2 blocks, according to the Restoration Project.
But today the building is in disrepair, with water damaged ceilings, a non-functional swimming pool and a shuttered ‘Anthony Wing’, named after its location along Anthony Avenue, which housed many the school’s many professional programs, say alumni.
In a statement, CPS said it is aware of concerns raised by former students of the school.
âThe district strives to ensure students have access to high quality facilities. [and] … we remain determined to continue our engagement, âthe statement read.
But improvements to the school, planned almost a decade ago, have been delayed or difficult due to budget constraints, the district said.
In 2012, CPS presented plans for two rounds of building capital improvements.
In 2015, $ 56 million worth of work was completed, including interior renovations and mechanical, electrical and plumbing upgrades.
But the lack of funds prevented a second round of work, which, among other things, would have included the demolition of the “Anthony Wing”, at an estimated cost of $ 7 million.
The demolition of the wing has not been included in any CPS capital plan since 2012.
For the elders, the financial crisis that has inadvertently saved Wing Anthony, so far, offers a silver lining.
The restoration group’s pressure for landmark status is focused on saving the wing, as well as restoring the structure and its community to its peak.
For the Mims and other alumni, the Anthony Wing was a key part of their solid professional training. At one point, the school offered nearly 30 professional programs, including aviation, welding and tailoring.
Today, the school has seven professional programs, including diesel mechanics and cosmetology, and faces other challenges. The CPS also offers other vocational programs, called vocational and technical education (CTE) programs, in 84 other high schools, the district said. Currently, 13,000 students are enrolled in CTE programs.
Last year he saw 63 arrests on his property, more than any other CPS school. Its 65.7 percent graduation rate this year is about 20 percentage points below the state average.
Mims said recognition from the Commission on Chicago Landmarks would not only help preserve the school’s historic architecture, but would also be the first step in the school’s turnaround.
âIt’s kind of like the Field of Dreams thing; if you build it, they will come, âMims said.
“Once we get the landmark designation on the building and can begin to hope that the property will be physically restored, that will create the space to reinstate these professional training programs.”
Lisa DiChiera, director of advocacy at Landmarks Illinois, a historic preservation advocacy organization, said there was “no doubt” the school met the criteria for a Chicago landmark. However, obtaining this status is more complicated.
âUsually Chicago public schools don’t want their buildings marked because they don’t want their hands tied on what they can and can’t do in the future,â DiChiera said.
In addition, the Chicago Planning and Development Department is unlikely to override the whims of another public body like the CPS without significant public pressure, she said.
“It really comes down to a political coalition that needs to push for this building to be designated as a Chicago landmark.”
While a landmark designation often saves buildings from demolition and adds another layer of control to any alteration, it doesn’t require owners to maintain or repair their buildings, she said.
CPC took no position on a landmark designation, stating: âAny decision on landmark status would be made in consultation with the community. “
While DiChiera has said the building deserves landmark status, this is only part of the school’s turnaround.
âThere has to be an effort on many fronts to meet all the needs of the school,â she said. “Establishing benchmarks is only part of the overall effort to improve this place,”
Beyond preserving the building’s architecture, alumni say vocational training programs are part of the solution to many problems in underserved communities on the south side.
âYoung people who get a vocational education certificate, we already know that these individuals will not be hijacking, these people will not steal from people,â said Steve Strode, a 1982 vocational education graduate.
Strode, originally from the South Side, received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois.
He says vocational training programs offer students the opportunity to live a “wonderful life,” especially when college is not an affordable option.
âThese young children have the energy to do something, and unfortunately they are going in the wrong direction,â he said. âWe have to stop people, we have to save people. “