A Stunning Historic High School That Alumni Can't Wait To Revisit
“It was like open heart surgery.”
Kevin Havens, executive vice president and director of design at Chicago-based firm Wight & Company, uses this analogy to describe what it was like to design and build an addition to a high school—without closing the school.
Joliet Central High School, located about 40 miles from Chicago in the town of Joliet, Illinois, is large. It extends two city blocks, and has four separate buildings about four stories tall. About 2,600 students roam its halls during the school year. Built in 1901 out of Joliet limestone by an Illinois native, the school is considered the heart of the town. The school grew over the years, with firms such as D.H. Burnham and Company in Chicago designing extensions in several separate periods from 1908 to 1931. For a while it was the largest high school in the country.
While the school’s future seemed secure, in October of 1981, the Joliet Township High School Board determined to close Joliet Central due to declining enrollment. Not everyone was thrilled with the decision. Students of Joliet Central and others in the community began a “Save Central” campaign. They organized demonstrations and a write-in campaign to the school board; the board stopped counting when they read the 10,000th write-in. Within a month, the new school board following the November election voted to keep open Central, saving it for future Joliet students.
"Most of the kids who go there now don't even realize that this building was once saved," says Tana Gray, who graduated from Joliet Central in 1960. She's remained in close contact with the school, having served on the school board for 20 years before her current tenure with the Archives Committee, which meets on the third floor of the school. In addition to conducting inventories of the school's artifacts (their collection includes a giant sculpture of a Steelman, the school's mascot, that was presented by an alumnus to the Century of Progress Exposition in 1933), the committee gives summer tours to reunion groups.
"JCHS has a huge amount of people who are very active with it. Some of them meet monthly—my husband's class will have its 60th anniversary this summer, and that's not unusual for this school," Gray explains.
Clearly, Joliet Central means something to the town. But the school wasn't perfect. It had several issues that hampered functionality and accessibility, problems that the school had grappled with since its construction. The cafeteria, for example, was located on the fourth floor, which made it difficult to bring up food. The older portions of the building were not ADA compliant, which had long been a point of contention. The school also lacked big, open spaces to hold communal events both for the student body and for outside organizations.
When the architecture firm Wight & Co. was brought in to design a new student center, Havens knew their designs needed to reflect the community’s connection to the school.
“The expansion of the student center…was so visible and had such a strong impact on the original structure,” Havens says.
Wight & Co. and the construction firm Gilbane Building Company proceeded carefully to preserve the architectural integrity of the school, which was listed on the National Register in 1982. They involved the community and worked with preservation organizations such as the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.
The new atrium, with its white, slender, tubular steel columns soaring above the limestone crenellations, is remarkably compatible with the older portion. It was important both for Wight & Co. and for the school that the new atrium blended with the original part of the school. They didn’t want it to be simply a replication of its original Gothic Collegiate counterpart.
“It has its own authenticity, and it’s in no way upstaging the original landmark,” says Havens.
The atrium—from the terrazzo floors, steel columns, and limestone walls—absorbs little. However, the geometry of the space was designed so that it could accommodate large gatherings without the accompanying loud, jumbled noises. Acoustic metal decking was chosen for the new atrium’s ceiling, which absorbs the sounds that bounce off the hard surfaces of the space.
For Gray, walking into the atrium at the unveiling was a special moment for her. "I was blown away. It's gorgeous."
She is looking forward to a class event inside the space this summer. "We don't have just reunions. We have birthday parties!"
If a class birthday party 50 years post-graduation sounds unusual for a high school, you'd probably be right. But perhaps Joliet Central shouldn't be considered a typical high school. After all, it seems that many alumni have precious memories of its halls that keep them coming back year after year. This is why the construction of the atrium and student center was so important to the community.
The addition is more than a new building. The thought and careful considerations that went into designing the addition for this locally significant school has ensured that this Joliet icon will remain an important space to both students of Joliet Central and to the community.