Crow Island Elementary school is a public school and an icon of progressive school design, located in suburban Winnetka. Commissioned in 1938 and opened in 1940 the school revolutionized the mainstream pattern of education houses. It was a successful collaboration between a thoughtful, progressive educator and A creative design team of Eero Saarinen, Eliel Saarinen, Lawrence Perkins, Wheeler, and Will.

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The school was a breakthrough with its modern ethos and child-centred design approach. Redefining the form and function through its contemporary materials, low scale, connection to the outdoor environment, of the elementary school in the post-depression era.

Crow Island School, Illinois by Eero Saarinen Sheet1
The Story in Bricks_ ©Albert Herring

The Saarinen duo spent much of the valuable time at the preliminary stage of design observing classes and communicating with teachers and students, delineating the innovative “Winnetka Plan”, which then worked as a national model in that era when the suburban splurge and Baby Boom surged the demand for new and modern schools throughout the United States.

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The schools’ modern structure flagged a clear departure from the multistoried, high ceilings, type building prevalent in the 1920s. The exterior walls are made up of yellow bricks, mostly laid out in a running bond providing a thoughtful texture on the facade. Spruced up by the decorative tiles colorfully crafted by Lillian Swan, peculiarly depicting animals. A slab-like three-storied high attenuated walls highlight the main entry from the north with two white glazed doors leading to a hallway at the cross of two main wings of the building. The hall is composed of exposed brick walls, with wooden bumpers at the corners, steel supports, and broad fixed windows. The gathering spaces with hearths are laid out at the odd corners of the hall.

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Playful Tiles by Lillian Swan_  ©Zach Mortice

Crow Island with an asymmetrical exterior, the low-scaled, rambling, flat roof was meant to foster a child’s growth. The school is composed of four classroom wings, a group around a central core of common rooms including the library, auditorium, and gymnasium. The large glass windows overlooking the Crow Island woods, flooded the class with ample natural light and ventilation, Inspiring awe and wonder in students, while taking education beyond the walls. Each unit has its sink and bathroom making them a self-contained village for much of the day with easy access to a cozy landscaped courtyard.

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Typical Crow Island Classroom_ ©jwcdaily.com/2018/08/19/kindness-counts/)The L-shaped outline of classrooms gives flexibility in the seating pattern for the user. The interior finish is of exposed brick, ponderosa pine-up walls, and plaster walls finished with bright primary colors. They run along on either side of the corridor. The hierarchy of class arrangement flows with kindergarten set on the east of the main doors with having a big playground for themselves. The west side has the first-grade classroom, with an easy flow to the paved area and green yard to the best of the school. 

Classes for the older school children are set around the central playground. With being a home to numerous unique architectural features, the school housed in its basement a ‘Pioneer Room’, a faux log cabin, where the children dip candles and spin wool.

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Pioneer Room ©WHS Photo 1976.47.1

The long and low plan of the Crow Island school is intimately tied with the landscape being set in the forest. The collaborative school design nurtures individuality, incites creative thinking, and reinforces vision. Though it has been a joint effort, many of the distinctive features of the premises can be attributed to the members of the Saarinen family. 

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Eero Saarinen designed the school’s molded plywood furniture, scaling desk, and chairs for the student occupants. The curtains and textile were designed by Loja Saarinen, Eliel’s wife. Door handles, custom-designed furniture, and rounded corners on brick hallway pillars made the design speak volumes about the attention paid to child psychology.

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Crow Island Layout_ ©thesisprep2014.wordpress.com/2014/11/08/finger-plan-schools/)
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Work of Art_©Zol87www.flickr.com/people/zol87/

The school is a complete work of art in true Bauhaus fashion, integrated to serve students, teachers, and the community, creating value to Architecture and education. It shaped the future of design for schools after the war, it was a prototype for many educational buildings. For its pivotal role in the 20th century in school architecture, Crow Island has been entitled a National Historic Landmark in 1990. 

The loud philosophy in bricks still feels fresh and inviting, with its clear approach of designing around the user. More than 80 years old, the school still serves as the most famous progressive school in America with zero signs of decay.

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Author

She is an architecture student, envisioning to mold the stereotyped perspective of architecture, beyond the walls and roofs. Practicing to craft song of words, which would do justice to the unseen and unheard beauty of the built world dancing around us. In hope that they will make a difference someday. Other than that you can find her gardening!

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